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New law in England must resolve nursing workforce shortages that compromise patient safety

17 Jul 2021

RCN demands health secretary is made legally accountable for having enough health care staff as new report shows UK government ignored catalogue of warnings about nursing workforce crisis.

Houses of Parliament

The RCN is stepping up its demands to make the health secretary fully accountable for the planning and supply of nursing staff in England as the Health and Care Bill passes through parliament.  

The bill, which puts forward several reforms to the health and care system in England, had its second reading in the House of Commons earlier this week.  

We issued a briefing to MPs in advance, outlining key changes that need to be made to secure the future supply of nursing staff and warning that the proposed legislation, as it currently stands, is unfit for purpose.  

Our calls were supported by shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth who raised the need for safe staffing legislation and fair pay for nursing staff. Other MPs also raised issues flagged to them by the RCN. 

Our influencing comes as we publish a new report revealing 21 times the government has ignored warnings about the nursing workforce crisis since 2016. Health policy experts, parliamentary scrutineers and health watchdogs have repeatedly stressed the severity of staffing shortages engulfing the health and care sector.  

RCN General Secretary & Chief Executive Pat Cullen said: “While Westminster was consumed by Brexit after 2016, there were more than 20 missed warnings given to ministers about the state of health and care staffing. 

“New legislation has to resolve this gross oversight compromising patient safety, once and for all. 

“With ministers gambling on lifting COVID-19 restrictions and NHS waiting lists apparently set to soar to up to 13 million, the public cannot be put at risk a moment longer. 

“We went into this pandemic with almost 50,000 nursing vacancies in the UK – and the true scale of the shortage is unknown. The government has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fix this problem and help a severely depleted workforce. If it doesn’t take this opportunity, it won’t even have the capacity to deliver the law as it is currently set out.” 

The RCN insists key changes must be made to the Health and Care Bill to enable the workforce crisis to be addressed. These include:

  • the publication every five, 10 and 20 years by the government of the workforce needed to deliver health and social care services based on population need 
  • ensuring a senior nurse sits on the board of the new regional health and social care organisations (called Integrated Care Systems) 

  • ensuring that the commissioning of services is done in partnership with local communities
  • ensuring that the voices of experts such as royal colleges are part of the regulation of the profession.

The bill will now progress to the committee stage of the legislative process, when it will be scrutinised line by line by a group of MPs this autumn. At this stage we will be seeking substantial amendments to the bill so it addresses the needs of our members.  

Page last updated - 06/08/2021