he Government has said it is on track to recruit 50,000 more nurses in the NHS by 2024, though the claim has been called into question by a union.
A progress report published on Monday shows that over 27,000 more nurses are already working in the health service compared to September 2019, bringing the total number to 327,907, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
That means it is more than halfway to meeting the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto promise of 351,000 nurses by March 2024, according to the department.
This is a political target in the absence of a proper health and care workforce strategy
Boris Johnson said: “It’s fantastic to see the progress we have made towards our manifesto commitment of delivering 50,000 more nurses by 2024. There are now over 27,000 more nurses providing exceptional care and treatment for patients across the country every day.
“Nurses are the absolute backbone of our NHS, without whom we would have been lost throughout the pandemic and who will be vital in helping the NHS tackle the Covid backlogs”.
The Prime Minister added that the Government will “continue to do everything we can to recruit and retain even more nurses and to support our NHS”.
The Government set out its strategy for adding more nurses in the progress report, which involves hiring more nurses domestically as well as internationally and retaining existing workers.
International recruitment is expected to add around 51,000-57,000 nurses while around 68,000-75,000 more will be trained in England over the next two years, DHSC said.
However, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the Government’s claims do not align with nurses’ daily experiences and cast doubt over how the numbers are calculated.
RCN general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen said: “The number of unfilled nurse jobs has risen in the last year, not fallen. This workforce crisis – tens of thousands of vacant posts – is hitting patient care and adds to waiting lists and treatment delays.
“Without transparent publication of workforce data, nursing staff will question these claims. They do not match their day-to-day experience trying to provide safe and effective care with a significantly depleted workforce.
“The Government has not been transparent about how it calculates the numbers genuinely needed for safe and effective care. Independent health policy experts share our concerns about the workforce not growing at the scale and pace needed for health and care services. This is a political target in the absence of a proper health and care workforce strategy.”
She added that experienced nursing staff are leaving in growing numbers and called for a fair pay rise.
“Minsters must do more to increase those applying to study nursing in the UK – disproportionately hiring from overseas without large scale efforts to grow the nursing workforce within the UK appears short-sighted and could be understood as ethically questionable,” Ms Cullen said.
Her demand for a rise in wages was echoed by the public service union Unison.
Its head of health Sara Gorton said: “Taking action on wellbeing, flexible working and career development for NHS staff are all important steps.
“But unless the retention package for nurses and other health workers includes measures to address their pay, then more will continue to leave.”
Figures from NHS England show 39,652 nurse vacancies in December – an increase from 36,277 in the same quarter in the previous year.
The Government’s progress report comes ahead of a speech this week by Health and Social Secretary Sajid Javid on his plans for long-term healthcare reform to help tackle Covid backlogs.
Mr Javid said: “I’m grateful to all our NHS nurses who’ve shown immense commitment during the pandemic, working tirelessly to look after us and our loved ones. It is this dedication that is inspiring the next generation and ensuring the NHS continues to provide world-class healthcare”.