Better workforce planning key to getting NHS back on track

By Sean O'Sullivan, Head of Health and Social Policy on 12 January 2022 Midwives MSWs - Maternity Support Workers NHS Staff Politics Government

As the media carries more stories of cancelled operations and delays to treatment, politicians and commentators are demanding that something is done. While delays in maternity may be a possibility, finding a coherent national plan for tackling staff shortages is as vital, if not way overdue, as in any other part of the NHS. This is a view shared by the House of Commons Health & Social Care Select Committee in its report into the impact of the pandemic on health and care services, published last week.

The report makes for sobering reading, as the Committee detail the scale and impact of the backlog, including:

  • 8 million people waiting for planned care, as at September 2021, the highest number since records began.
  • One in four patients waiting longer than four hours to be admitted to emergency care.
  • The highest number of 999 calls on record.
  • 2 million people in the UK experiencing some form of long Covid.

While the Committee acknowledges that additional financial support has been pledged to reduce waiting lists, the report makes it clear that workforce shortages are the main barrier to tackling the backlog. With 93,000 current vacancies and shortages across all specialties, including midwifery, the Committee has urged the Government, not for the first time, to recognise the need for effective workforce planning.

Unfortunately, the evidence presented to the Committee casts doubt on the adequacy of plans for the recruitment and retention of staff. There was no mention of funding for Health Education England HEE) in the Government’s Spending Review, nor has there been any discussion about increasing training numbers recent Government Spending Review.

In addition, the Government has resisted an amendment to the Health and Care Bill that would have required it to publish an independently verified assessment of health, social care and public health workforce numbers at least once every two years. The amendment, which has the support of the RCM and other health unions and Royal Colleges, also has the backing of Jeremy Hunt MP, Chair of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, Labour’s health team and Baroness Cumberlege, who will present it for debate in the House of Lords.

In the meantime, the Committee has recommended that:

  • HEE publish objective and transparent reports on workforce projections, including an assessment of whether enough staff are being trained.
  • The Government undertake an urgent review of short-term recruitment and retention issues within the health and social care workforce and publish this review in early 2022.
  • NHS England should demonstrate its ongoing commitment to staff wellbeing by publishing a refreshed NHS People Plan as soon as possible.

The RCM welcomes this important report and fully supports these recommendations for tackling staffing shortages. That is why, we are urging the Government to think again and accept the amendment to the Health and Care Bill, so that the NHS can properly plan to recruit, train and retain the right number of staff across all specialties. Along with other NHS trade unions, we have also written to the Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, to call for him to adopt an urgent recovery package that is needed to tackle the immediate retention issues and reduce the number of staff looking to work outside of the NHS or bringing forward retirement plans.