Patient safety at risk in England unless nurse numbers increase, RCN warns

By agency reporter
September 22, 2019

The shortage of nursing staff in England is putting patient safety at risk, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has warned, as it launched a new campaign to encourage the public to speak out about the impact of England’s 40,000 nurse shortage. 

The RCN’s campaign calls for legislation to be brought forward in England to help address the nursing workforce crisis. Earlier this year, nurses and support workers in Scotland secured new legislation on safe staffing levels, and a nurse staffing law was introduced in Wales in 2016.

The 2013 Francis Report on failings of care at Stafford Hospital concluded that the main factor responsible was a significant shortage of nurses at the hospital.  Nurse numbers at NHS acute Trusts across England then increased as managers took steps to try to prevent similar scandals in the future. 

But a new analysis by the RCN shows that for every one extra nurse NHS acute Trusts in England have managed to recruit in the five years since 2013/14, there were 157 extra admissions to hospital as emergencies or for planned treatment. 

Last year the number of extra admissions for every additional nurse taken on increased to 217.  The analysis shows that the extra 9,894 nurses recruited to NHS hospitals since 2013/14 is dwarfed by the additional 1,557 074 admissions over the same period.

Public polling carried out for the College to mark the campaign launch reveals that:

  • 71 per cent of respondents in the UK think there are not enough nurses in the NHS to provide safe care to patients
  • The top priority among those polled for any additional funding for the NHS in England was recruiting more nurses (chosen as top priority by 37 per cent of respondents in England from a list of eight alternatives)
  • 67 per cent of respondents in England wrongly think the Government has a legal responsibility to ensure there are sufficient nursing staff 

 The campaign advertisements feature the strapline, “Nurses are the people’s people Now we need to fight for them. They urge readers and users to sign a new petition the RCN has created, which reads: “I’m calling on the Government to invest in tomorrow’s nurses, end this crisis and make clear in law who is truly accountable for safe (and effective) patient care.”  

The College is calling on Ministers and NHS leaders in England to take the following actions:

  • Introduce legislation to ensure accountability for safe nurse staffing at all levels of health and care services in England, from the Health Secretary downwards
  • Ensure that a statutory body has responsibility for future nurse workforce planning – no one body has this function at present.  The 40,000 nursing posts currently vacant in England represent only the number for which the NHS has funding – they take no account of the number of nurses in health and care services in England will actually require in the future to meet the needs of an ageing population.
  • Invest at least £1 billion in nurse higher education in order to reverse the reduction in the number of students both applying to and taking up places on nursing degree courses.  Since the removal of the nursing bursary in 2016, applications have fallen by 29 per cent, and the number of students starting degrees by eight per cent.

Commenting on the campaign launch, Dame Donna Kinnair, RCN Chief Executive and General Secretary, said: “Today we’re issuing a stark warning that patient safety is being endangered by nursing shortages.  Staffing shortfalls are never simply numbers on a spreadsheet – they affect real patients in real communities.

“We’re calling on the public in England to fight for nurses and sign our petition calling on the Westminster Government to invest in the future workforce and make clear who is accountable in law for safe patient care. 

“Our polling shows almost two-thirds of people already fear there aren’t enough nurses to provide safe care – and they want recruiting more nurses to be the top priority for any extra funding for the NHS in England. 

“Nurses are the single most trusted professional group in the whole country, with 96 per cent of the public placing them at the top of a list of occupations including doctors, teachers, the police and scientists. Nursing staff are asking for your support in calling time on this crisis.”

* Royal College of Nursing


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.