NHS workforce figures show sector still struggling with chronic staffing shortage

Healthcare leaders call on government to urgently clarify future immigration legislation ahead of Brexit to ensure more staff do not leave the profession

New NHS workforce data has revealed a ‘sobering reality’ that the healthcare sector is still struggling to cope with ever-increasing demand, showing only small year-on-year increases in staffing numbers.

The figures have led to calls on the government to clarify its future immigration policy to ensure more staff do not leave the UK because of growing uncertainty over their future after Brexit.

The NHS workforce data, published yesterday, showed there were 1,239,631 staff employed by the NHS across England in May this year, a drop of 1,695 from the month before. The trend was broadly similar when compared to workforce data of healthcare staff in full-time employment.

Employment had been slowly increasing over the six months prior, and overall there was a 3 per cent increase in NHS employment in May 2019 when compared to the previous year – equivalent to 35,596 roles.

The data also showed there were still 89,589 advertised vacancies for full-time employment in England between January and March this year. Of these, a majority (84 per cent) were permanent staff while 16 per cent were for fixed-term contracts.

The highest percentage of vacancies were for nursing and midwifery staff, which accounted for 42 per cent of full-time vacancies, followed by 20 per cent for administrative and clerical staff.

Nick Ville, director of policy and membership at the NHS Confederation, said the small year-on-year increases in NHS staffing numbers did match the increasing demand on the sector, and that many healthcare leaders had said that the workforce was their number one concern for the future.

He said research conducted by NHS Confederation showed two-thirds of leaders in the health service admitted they were not confident they would be able to meet workforce demands at their current state.

“We desperately need to attract more people and keep those we have working with us if the NHS is not to overheat and to ensure we are providing great care to people in need,” Ville said. 

Sue Covill, director of development and employment at NHS Employers, added the data revealed some “sobering realities” that, despite overall staff numbering going up, there was still a “great deal of work to do to fill” vacancy gaps.

“It’s reassuring to see that staff numbers are not declining overall, but it is clear that they are not growing at the rate they need to, to meet demand,” said Covill. “To make sure the health service can keep providing the high-quality care our communities expect and deserve, we know there is more to be done to recruit and retain the staff.”

NHS Employers called on the government to “alleviate” some of the NHS’s burden by focusing on recruiting and retaining healthcare staff, reforming the apprenticeship levy and clarifying the UK’s future migration policy so the NHS could prepare staff for future legislative changes.

This comes as doctors and nurses have warned the government’s plans to end free movement for EU citizens on the 31 October in the event of a no-deal Brexit could "devastate" the healthcare system.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and British Medical Association (BMA) both called on the government to clarify its immigration policy to ensure more staff do not leave the UK due to uncertainty over their future after the October deadline.

Speaking to BuzzFeed, the BMA said the prime minister Boris Johnson's plans to end free movement could cause "untold disruption" to both the NHS workforce and patients.

While the majority of the 1.2 million NHS staff in England are British, a substantial minority come from outside the UK, according to House of Commons Library data. Overall, 13 per cent of NHS staff say their nationality is not British, and 65,000 healthcare workers in England are EU nationals – almost 6 per cent of all staff. 

Dr Helena McKeown, chief officer of the BMA, told BuzzFeed that “closing the gate” on experienced medical staff from the EU could potentially plunge the NHS into a “workforce crisis” at a time when many hospitals and surgeries in England are already struggling to recruit staff.

“Additionally, the end of free movement will place huge administrative burdens on employers, including already under pressure hospitals and GP practices, who will have to check who can and cannot work for them,” McKeown said.