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Closing the gap

Key areas for action on the health and care workforce


Staffing is the make-or-break issue for the NHS in England. Workforce shortages are already having a direct impact on patient care and staff experience.

Urgent action is now required to avoid a vicious cycle of growing shortages and declining quality. The workforce implementation plan to be published later this year presents a pivotal opportunity to do this.

In this joint report with the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation, we set out a series of policy actions that, evidence suggests, should be at the heart of the workforce implementation plan. We focus on nursing and general practice, where the workforce problems are particularly severe. There are no silver bullets, but these are high-impact policy actions which, if properly funded and well implemented across the NHS, would over time create a sustainable model for general practice and help to eliminate nursing shortages. They will require investment of an extra £900 million per year by 2023/24 into the budget of Health Education England.

Take a look at the key messages below.

Increasing nursing numbers

  • On current trends, in 10 years’ time the NHS will have a shortfall of 108,000 full-time equivalent nurses. Half this gap could be bridged by increasing the number of nurses joining the NHS from training. This would require 5,000 more nurses to start training each year by 2021, reducing the drop-out rate during training by a third and encouraging more nurses to join the NHS once they qualify.

  • To achieve this, we recommend that the government significantly increases the financial support to nursing students with ‘cost of living’ grants of around £5,200 a year on top of the means-tested loan system. Further action, including covering the costs of tuition fees, should be taken to triple the number of nurses training as postgraduates. This is essential to address the financial problems trainee nurses face while studying that deter students from starting a nursing degree and are a factor in the high drop-out rate (attrition) during training. The availability and quality of clinical placements is another key priority for reform as part of a wider strategy to increase the numbers completing training.

  • While policy action and investment could transform the outlook for nurse staffing shortages over the next decade, the prospects until the end of the parliament are much more worrying. To avoid nurse staffing shortages acting as a major brake on the delivery of the NHS long-term plan, international recruitment will need to play a substantial role in the NHS workforce implementation plan. We estimate that an additional 5,000 internationally recruited nurses will be needed each year until 2023/24.

Team-based general practice

  • National efforts to increase the number of GPs need to continue, but the stark reality is that even with a major focus on increasing the number of GPs in training, we project the numbers of GPs in the NHS will fall substantially short of demand and of the government’s target of an additional 5,000 GPs.

  • The only way forward is to make substantial progress towards a new model of general practice with an expanded multidisciplinary team drawing on the skills of other health care professionals. The new GP contract and the NHS long-term plan support this shift, but the key issue is the speed, consistency and quality of implementation across the NHS. The workforce implementation plan needs to clearly outline how this model will be rolled out safely across the country, and at pace.

Making the NHS a better place to work

  • Beyond the specific actions on nursing and general practice, the workforce implementation plan must focus on how the NHS can become a better employer and a place where staff want to build a career. Building on what already exists in the NHS Constitution, the NHS needs an explicit statement of the universal ‘offer’ to staff – including, but not limited to, their legal rights. It should cover fair treatment for all staff but also what staff can expect in terms of pay and opportunity, continuing professional development, work–life balance and proper appraisal. Other steps to boost retention include more focus on supporting staff who are at the beginning and end of their NHS career. Meaningful action on equality and inclusion must be at the heart of this, building on existing initiatives, so that all NHS organisations have concrete action plans to tackle discrimination and inequality.

  • Pay and reward are tangible signs of how far staff are valued and have a clear impact on retention. The current Agenda for Change pay deal runs until 2021. Beyond then pay in the NHS will need to continue to rise in real terms in line with wider economy earnings.

  • Alongside pay, the NHS pension scheme is frequently cited as a barrier to retention, particularly for more experienced staff, who have been impacted by changes to wider pension policy. In many instances these staff would like to stay. The NHS should urgently look at options for more flexibility, similar to the local government pension scheme.

  • Rapidly changing patient needs and technological advances mean all frontline staff will need to adapt and enhance their skills. Current progress is much too slow. The failure to investment in the development of existing staff also sends a powerful, negative signal about the NHS’s commitment to its people and their career development. A fourfold increase in the current workforce development budget is required to accelerate change and support people.

  • Compassionate and inclusive leadership will be key to successful implementation of many of the recommendations we set out. The national arm’s length bodies also need to deliver on their pledges to change their behaviour and approaches.

Social care

  • We are highly aware of the close interrelationship between the NHS and social care. Addressing shortages in the NHS must not come at the expense of the already stretched social care workforce.

  • We therefore recommend a series of policy changes to improve recruitment and retention in social care, including a sector-specific route for international migration that works for social care post-Brexit, as current proposals will not be adequate. More fundamentally, we recognise that workforce challenges in this sector reflect its poor pay, terms and conditions. This can only be addressed by government – first through additional funding in the 2019 Spending Review, and in the longer term through comprehensive reform of adult social care funding.

Workforce planning in the future

With policy action and investment, our analysis suggests the workforce challenges facing the NHS are not inevitable. But the cause of our current workforce problems goes deeper than individual policy failures. The workforce has not been a policy priority: responsibility for it is fragmented nationally and locally, the information the NHS needs to understand and plan its workforce remains poor, and the NHS has not invested in the leadership capability and skills needed to manage the workforce effectively. The government cannot continue to view education and training as an overhead cost to be minimised. The forthcoming NHS workforce implementation plan needs to address not just specific policy areas but also the roles, responsibilities, skills and capabilities needed across the system for more effective workforce planning. But above all, it is a plan that needs to be properly funded.

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