With most political parties having shared their positions, it is a good moment to take stock. Just before the election, money to provide continuing professional development in England was communicated. This begins to restore investment and is an act of recognition of the importance of developing and valuing the careers of our nursing professionals.
We are encouraged by efforts that reflect the policy priorities of our members, and also signify an understanding of the importance of nursing education to the health outcomes of patients. Politicians should aim high to help bridge the gap between what we currently have within our health and care services, and what is needed. Alongside this, emphasis on the retention of nurses, as well as ensuring that we are able to recruit enough overseas nurses in the short term, would start to tackle the enormous shortages we currently have – both of these are a must.
We support the aspiration put forward by the Conservative Party to add and retain 50,000 more registered nurses into the workforce by 2023, a helpful ambition which focuses on big growth in the people needed to provide health and care for patients. The numbers proposed reflect how serious the policy and funding interventions need to be in order to resolve the health and care workforce crisis, although as always, the detail as to how this might be done is critical. A commitment for the provision of a grant for nursing students would go some way to meet living costs and would be a step in the right direction. But we urge the Conservative Party to also address the cost of tuition fees to ensure that every opportunity to increase our domestic supply of nurses is taken. Funds for cost of living should be sufficient and responsive to actual need, aligned with credible tuition support.
Labour have committed to put £1 billion into financial help for nursing students, but this must be forthcoming every year, not just a one-off. The Liberal Democrats have also recognised that removal of funding for student education in England badly affected numbers and have promised financial help, but only for some, not all. We are clear that this isn’t enough - financial help for nursing students must be across the board, for cost of living and tuition alike, for everyone who wants to study in England. Without this, and comprehensive measures to retain nurses who are already working, efforts would be filling a leaky bucket.
Our members are also clear that legislation is needed in England to introduce clear roles and responsibilities for Government and the system to ensure there are enough nurses, and that staffing levels in all health and care services are safe. The Green Party has recognised the need for legal duty to ensure there are enough health and care staff to meet the needs of the population. The Labour Party has committed to addressing safe staffing in law. It would be real progress to see all political parties making this commitment too, and with 18 days left until the election, anything is possible.
All in all, political parties across the spectrum are pledging parts of what is needed to truly enable the nursing profession to thrive, and to deliver safe and effective care. As a straight shooter, I have to say, that the truth is that our profession needs all of the things that are being promised – it is not, for example, a case of either grants or tuition. The solutions put in place by policy-makers need to be holistic, courageous, bold in the scale of ambition and led with our profession.
It is really important to be clear that there is a global shortage of nurses, and so what we do here in the UK must be radical in how it truly meets the needs of our existing workforce, valuing and recognising their contribution, as well as equipping us all for the future.
While we love and value our international colleagues, and always want them to be welcomed in at the heart of our health and care services – a long-term overreliance on overseas staff cannot continue because of our failure to train enough nurses here in the UK. With the numbers leaving our profession because of retirement, and because of workload, significant efforts to improve the retention of our current workforce must be made to stop the brain drain. This necessitates investing significantly in the people currently working in our health and care services, in the first instance.
Alongside radical intervention, now is the time to celebrate our profession, making clear the wealth of opportunities available to people – including our young people – or else we will face serious further problems to the health of our nation in the future.
This isn’t just a money issue, although that is critically important. We need proper workforce planning, looking after the people that we have and ensuring that we all – including people who use services - are equipped to play our part in the future of health and care. Radical interventions are needed to ensure that our number one priority – the health and wellbeing of people across the UK – is secured.
Whatever happens next, the RCN is ready to work with a new Government to understand how policy and funding interventions can be effective and have the required impact on growing and developing the nursing workforce.