RCN: 50k-nurse target has failed to address staffing crisis

The government’s target of 50,000 more nurses has made little difference because NHS services are still dangerously understaffed, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has warned today.

Good progress is being made towards meeting the target by March 2024, with 47,278 additional nurses in place in England since the programme started in 2019.

However, the RCN has today revealed new analysis which it says “exposes the inadequacy” of the 50,000 goal.

It says its analysis made “clear that the NHS continues to face dangerous staff shortages”.

The RCN investigation showed that, since the pledge in 2019, the patient waiting list for elective care had grown more than four times faster than the number of nurses recruited.

There had been a 16% increase in nursing staff, while patient waiting lists had grown 70% since the target was set.

Meanwhile, nurse vacancies had declined by little more than 100 in the four years since the pledge – with 43,339 roles still unfilled in England’s registered nurse workforce compared to 43,452 in 2019.

In addition, the RCN said within these figures there was “widespread regional variation” which pointed to a “postcode lottery” for patients.

It found that there were just 47 nurses per 10,000 people across NHS services in Leicestershire, North Yorkshire, and Cornwall compared to 79 across North Central London.

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The RCN also criticised the government’s dependence on international recruitment to meet the 50,000-more nurses’ target.

It pointed to a letter revealed this month in the UK Covid Inquiry which showed that, in 2020, the government was relying on a “notable additional international recruitment” to hit the goal.

RCN director for England, Patricia Marquis, said: “Not a single nurse will say that it feels like there are more staff now – they say the very opposite.

“When patient numbers and demand is so high, staffing levels become dangerously inadequate.

“It is unsafe for patients and professionals alike when one nurse cares for 10, 15 or more patients at a time and beds are put in corridors or other inappropriate places.

“The government’s political target was not based on calculation of patient needs and the international reliance shows they reached for short-sighted and unethical means rather than sustained domestic growth in nursing.”

The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, published in June 2023, advocates for 170,000-190,000 additional nurses by 2036-37.

The RCN warned that the plan needed to be given “adequate funding to support its level of ambition”.

Ms Marquis called on the new health and social care secretary, Victoria Atkins, to secure “urgent investment in the nursing workforce” in the upcoming autumn statement.

In addition, she said tuition fees for student nurses in England needed to be abolished, and nurses needed to be paid “fairly”.

The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.

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