'Legal limbo leaving patient care at risk' says the RCN, as nurse vacancies hit record high

Press Release 08/10/2019

‘Legal limbo leaving patient care at risk’ says the RCN, as nurse vacancies hit record high

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is today warning that the lack of watertight legal responsibilities for the supply and planning of the health and care workforce is fuelling the staffing crisis. 

The College makes the claim as NHS figures show that there are now a record 43,617 (note 1) empty nursing posts in the NHS in England alone, a figure compounded by a global shortage of nurses and the removal of the nursing bursary. In the NHS in England, 12% of posts are now without a full time Registered Nurse.

To address the record number of vacancies, and the gap between the numbers of health and care staff needed to deliver patient care vs. how many are in the system, the College says there must be clarity on the roles, responsibilities, as well as accountabilities, for workforce planning and supply, and that these must be set out clearly in law.

Recent polling for the RCN pointed out that 80% of the public agrees that the Government should have a legal responsibility for ensuring there are enough nursing staff.

In a report released today titled ‘Standing up for patient and public safety’, the Royal College of Nursing outlines the evidence of the need for a new law that allocates specific legal responsibilities for workforce planning and supply. It is no longer the time to be discussing whether we need law, but to discuss how we secure these essential legal changes in legislation are secured.

The report comes on the same day Maria Caulfileld MP presents a Ten Minute Rule Bill in the House of Commons highlighting the nursing workforce shortage.

The Health and Social Care Act (2012) devolved many of the roles and responsibilities for workforce planning and supply but the RCN report shows that the resulting lack of clarity in relation to those responsibilities across all parts of the health system has left parts of it in ‘limbo’ and held back attempts to address the crisis.

In September, after pressure from RCN members, NHS England and NHS Improvement stated that the issue of accountability for workforce planning and supply remains an area that needs be resolved.

The lack of nursing staff in particular is already compromising patient care with the report presenting new analysis by the RCN that shows where there were less than 50% of the registered nurses than planned on shift, staff were twice as likely to report that care had been compromised than if working on a fully staffed ward.

This new report demonstrates clearly why action is needed to tackle the current workforce crisis but also to ensure there is a sustained investment in the future workforce, at least £1bn per year.

Dame Donna Kinnair, Chief Executive and General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing said:

“Nurses are working harder than ever to deliver safe patient care but are being held back by a system that is legally lacking teeth. Despite the public, patients and nurses all agreeing that clarity is needed on responsibilities for delivering enough nurses, we have yet to see any government pledge anything of the like, and as a result are staring down the barrel at a record 43,000 empty nursing posts.

“We know how dangerous it can be when there aren’t enough nurses to provide care, but at present, almost all accountability rests with the frontline nurse working on the understaffed ward, rather than those responsible for the system they work in.  We believe the time has come for change and that patient care was future-proofed by law, and that from the government down, decision makers are held to account.

“But whilst legislation is fundamental to protecting patient care, it is not the only piece of the puzzle. The nursing profession needs serious investment, particularly in education and training. So alongside vital legislative changes to lock in accountability throughout the health and care system, there must also be at least £1billion a year put into nursing higher education.

“Without these bold changes, the public and staff within health and care services cannot be confident that safe and effective care can be delivered, risking the health of patients now and in the future.”


Notes to Editors 

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is the voice of nursing across the UK and is the largest professional union of nursing staff in the world. The RCN promotes the interest of nurses and patients on a wide range of issues and helps shape healthcare policy by working closely with the UK Government and other national and international institutions, trade unions, professional bodies and voluntary organisations.

The full report is available here

Note 1 See NHS England data (NHS Vacancy Statistics – Feb 2015 – June 2019, Tab 51)

For more information on this press release, contact the RCN press office at 020 7647 3633 or email mediateamhq@rcn.org.uk 

Press Office Contacts

Katherine Jarman, Head of Media
020 7647 3484 / 077186 96838

Daniel Sutherland, Senior Media Officer
020 7647 3695

Nick Spears, Senior Media Officer
020 7647 3696

Out of hours duty press officer
020 7647 3633