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'Dangerously inadequate staffing levels': NHS waiting list growing 4 times faster than nurse workforce

16 Nov 2023

RCN analysis exposes failure of UK government’s promise to recruit 50,000 nurses to tackle the crisis facing the NHS.

Accident and Emergency Government claims of fixing the nursing workforce crisis with thousands more nurses have been discredited by our analysis. We can reveal that while there’s been a 16% increase in nursing staff, patient waiting lists have grown 70% since the target was set out in the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto.

We say the NHS Long-Term Workforce Plan must be given adequate funding to achieve its big promises, as the NHS continues to face dangerous staff shortages.

In England, patient demand has far outstripped modest growth of the NHS workforce. There are 43,339 roles unfilled in England’s registered nurse workforce now, compared to 43,452 in 2019.

Since 2019, the patient waiting list for elective care has grown more than 4 times faster than the number of nurses recruited. Widespread regional variation across England also means there’s a postcode lottery for patient care, with some areas having significantly fewer nurses.

We’re calling on the government to do more to support people to study nursing. This year there was a 12% fall in the number of people expected to take up nursing courses in England. Almost half of new joiners to the NMC register are now internationally recruited.

Large-scale international recruitment is expensive, unsustainable and unethical given global nursing workforce shortages. Many recent internationally educated nursing recruits have come from “red list” countries which the World Health Organization has warned face dangerous health care worker shortages and should therefore not be recruited from.

Patricia Marquis, RCN Director for England, 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 are 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.

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

With the autumn statement just days away, we’re calling on the new health secretary, Victoria Atkins, to secure urgent investment in the nursing workforce now, to keep the staff we already have and recruit a new generation.

Nursing students take on an average of £50,000 of debt to cover the cost of their training. We’re calling for tuition fees for nursing students to be abolished and for all nursing staff to be paid fairly.

“Only then will there be enough nurses to give patients the care they need and deserve,” added Patricia.

Page last updated - 15/11/2023