SIXTY Unison nursing delegates gathered in Warwick last week for the ‘safe staffing forum’ in which the worforce crisis in the NHS was discussed. The conference demanded a legal minimum safe staffing level, stating that the anything less that one staff to eight patients puts lives at risk.
Unison national officer for nursing Stuart Tuckwood opened the day of talks and working groups, by stating: ‘We’re only going to be able to achieve victories if we work together.’
Delegates heard research on safe staffing ratios from Peter Griffiths of the University of Southampton, which found that anything less than a nurse to patient ratio of 1:8 has increased negative outcomes for patient safety.
Latest figures show that in England, there are currently 39,000 nurse vacancies.
Unison vice president James Anthony highlighted the challenges for student nurses: ‘One of the big things that get lost when staff don’t have time is our ability to support student nurses.’
Joy O’Gorman, a student nurse from Plymouth, has first-hand experience of how staffing shortages have affected her training.
‘The nurses that are overworked and stressed just do not have the headspace to be able to give you the training and support that you need,’ she said.
‘While some nurses are fantastic at it and will make that time, it’s hard when a burnt-out nurse has to give you her time when she can barely cope through her own shift herself. It’s a big ask.’
Stacie May, who is due to qualify as a nurse in 18 months, told the forum: ‘When we go into placement, other nurses tell us, “You’re mad trying to be a nurse now”. Training to be a nurse now, there’s added responsibility, added pressures, not enough time, not enough nurses.
‘They tell us that before, when you trained you looked after patients. Now it’s more about paperwork. You’re coming in for very short-staffed shifts. Anyone who doesn’t really care about the work would be put off.’
O’Gorman said she found the forum to be a valuable, nourishing space, adding: ‘Coming to an event like this is really empowering, because when you’re a student nurse, and you go out on placements, you feel quite isolated and alone. And although you bond with people, it’s very short term.
‘Coming to a conference like this where there are nurses from the wider nursing family, as well as student nurses, you realise there’s a collective voice that you’re a part of. And when you open your mouth you’re not a lone voice, you’ve got a lot of backing behind you and a strength from that.’
Mark Maynard is a Unison branch secretary for South London and Maudsley, a specialist mental health trust. He is representing members who go through a restructure that’s driven by recruitment.
‘The mental health services in the NHS are second-tier. We are the forgotten side of the NHS,’ he said.
‘There’s hype and attention on staffing numbers for student nurses and hospitals, but we see the same issues in mental health.’
He continued: ‘Right now, my members are undergoing a consultation on changing staffing numbers on wards.
‘Management are proposing to reduce the number of band six mental health nurses on the wards, who are part of the emergency and duty senior nurse teams, and want to relocate them around the organisation.
‘This change affects almost exclusively black members, because the vast majority of staff are black and most of management are white.’
And he added: ‘I’ve seen mental health staff become patients, because of the pressures of the job and the strain they’re under.’
As well as learning about the latest statistics on safe staffing, delegates heard from the Australian safe staffing campaign and had the opportunity to network together.
The atmosphere was brewing with ideas, community and power and a shared motivation to keep healthcare staffing safe, by whatever means necessary.
Meanwhile, on the same issue the RCN said: ‘Our campaign for safe and effective care took centre stage during a parliamentary debate on the nursing workforce shortage in England.’
The debate in Westminster Hall was brought forward by Mohammad Yasin, who is the MP for Bedford and an RCN nursing champion. He introduced it by stressing the impact of the nursing workforce crisis on patient safety and staff morale and called on the government to take urgent action to fix staff shortages.
Directly quoting RCN evidence, he said: ‘Listen to nurses. Listen to the RCN. They want action.’
Throughout the debate MPs focused on the detrimental effect low staffing levels are having on nursing staff and patients. They also spoke about the importance of recruiting and retaining NHS nursing staff, providing appropriate training for existing staff, removing financial barriers for nursing students and establishing accountability for nurse staffing levels.
The importance of international recruitment was also discussed with politicians echoing the RCN’s demands for nurses not to have to pay the immigration health surcharge, for nursing to be listed as a shortage profession, and for the salary cap for nursing staff recruited from overseas to be reviewed.
Responding on behalf of the government, Minister for Care Helen Whately MP paid tribute to NHS staff and recognised that any nursing vacancy rate is too high.
The RCN said: ‘We will be meeting with the minister in the coming weeks to discuss our campaign in more detail and requesting that the government act urgently.
Mike Adams, RCN Director for England, said: ‘Tackling the nursing shortage has to remain the government’s highest priority. There must be a legal responsibility to ensure there are enough nurses now and for the future to provide safe and effective care to all patients.’
The debate comes less than a month after RCN members descended on Downing Street to hand in petitions with more than 220,0000 signatures calling on the government to end the workforce crisis in England. In the days leading up to the debate, hundreds of members tweeted their MPs urging them to attend.
Meanwhile, unions in Scotland have warned the country is facing a ‘chronic shortage’ of doctors as new figures show there are 480 consultant posts vacant across the NHS.
BMA Scotland voiced its concerns about the ‘substantial long-term gaps’ in the medical workforce as the latest figures on NHS staffing were published.
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland said the number of nursing staff was ‘simply not keeping pace with the number of people they are expected to care for’.
Overall, the number of people working for the health service in Scotland increased, with the whole time equivalent (WTE) of 142,471.4 staff members employed at the end of December 2019.
That included 5,392.2 WTE medical and dental consultants, 60,651 WTE nurses and midwives and 11,976.4 WTE allied health professionals – such as physiotherapists, podiatrists and dieticians.
NHS figures showed vacancies for consultants had increased by 15.7% over the year to stand at 480.8 WTE – with more than half (55.1%) of these jobs having been empty for six months or more.
Vacancies in nursing and midwifery increased by 16.8% over the year to stand at 3,606.9 WTE posts.
Meanwhile, there was a 19.3% increase in vacancies for allied health professionals, with this up to 724.3 WTE at the end of 2019.
Graeme Eunson, chairman of the BMA’s Scottish consultants committee, said: ‘It is time for a reality check. We need to see more investment in core staff if waiting times are to be realistically tackled.’
He described the ‘substantial long-term gaps in Scotland’s workforce’ as being a ‘growing and serious concern – stretching the workforce to the limit and affecting the ability of doctors to deliver the high-quality patient care they strive for’.
Eunson said: ‘We need urgent and long-lasting action to address this deeply worrying lack of doctors. It is vital this chronic shortage of doctors is finally addressed.
‘We need to see serious steps in Scotland to make working as a doctor an appealing career choice and show doctors they are valued.’
He added: ‘That means focused efforts on recruitment and retention, improved work-life balance and concrete steps to improve the culture in the NHS; tackling bullying, and reducing the narrow focus on targets and the high pressure, blame-focused environment they create.
‘I appeal to Scottish ministers to take this matter seriously and to address it urgently before it’s too late.’
RCN Scotland director Theresa Fyffe said the new statistics provided ‘yet more evidence of the pressures faced by Scotland’s NHS in maintaining a sustainable workforce’.
Fyffe said: ‘The number of nurses and health care support workers in both our NHS and care home sector is simply not keeping pace with the number of people they are expected to care for.’
She added: ‘We need to ensure nursing is seen as an attractive and rewarding career and that policies and working conditions support nursing staff to stay in the profession.’