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Why are there so many unfilled nurse vacancies?



With the modern nurse doing everything from taking care of patients’ physical needs to administering routine medical procedures, nurses are the lifeblood of the NHS, however, there just aren’t enough of them in post.

It’s believed that the National Health Service (NHS) needs to fill around 40,000 nurse positions across Britain, and the recruitment figures simply aren’t going up fast enough. In this article, we’ll explore why that is the case.

The scale of the issue

With an 8.3% rise in the number of nursing vacancies in the last year, it’s clear that the problem is not going away anytime soon. Part of the difficulty lies with the fact that issues around pay and funding are set in stone from early training levels. The student bursary, for example, was removed in 2015, so it’s harder than ever to learn how to become a nurse if you come from a low-income background.


And with evidence making it clear that NHS nurse recruitment problems are worst in those parts of the country where there is a high cost of living (such as the Home Counties and other areas in the London region), it’s clear that another major contributing factor to the nurse shortage is pay-related: salaries just aren’t high enough.

“Nursing is a wonderful career, but the Government must do more to make it attractive to the tens of thousands of new nurses we need,” says Janet Davies, the Chief Executive and General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which represents the profession. “If Ministers fail, they are storing up unimaginable problems for the future. The staffing crisis must be stopped from spiralling further.”


When Britain voted to leave the European Union back in June 2017, it was predicted that both good and bad effects would be seen across sectors when the break eventually takes place. Nursing, of course, is no exception – and data from the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) shows that there was an 89% drop in the number of nurses recruited between the leave vote and the end of the year. Take the example of Spain. Before Brexit, almost two thousand Spanish nurses a year would join the NMC’s register – but between October 2016 and September 2017, it was just over one hundred – a drop of over 90%.

Turning to agency nurses

One proposed solution is to increase the number of agency nurses who can come in and plug the holes in hospital staffing levels. Agency nurses, who are paid a contractor pay rate rather than a salary, are bailing out many hospitals that wouldn’t otherwise know where to turn when their lack of regular nursing staff becomes acute.

With the number of recruits into nursing reducing each month, it’s clear that action needs to be taken to prevent a crisis in the NHS. Whether it’s reaching out to foreign nurses to make it clear they’re welcome, funding more training positions or by using a mixture of approaches, there’s a lot to consider. But without change happening soon, it’s likely that the problem will worsen in the months and years ahead.


Nursing vacancies hit record high leaving patient care at risk

It can be “dangerous” when there aren’t enough nurses to provide care.



Patient Falls Risk with IV

There are now a record 43,671 empty nursing posts in the NHS in England alone.

NHS figures show that there are now a record 43,671 empty nursing posts in the NHS in England alone, according to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

The College says a global shortage of nurses alongside the removal of the nursing bursary has compounded this figure which now sees 12% of posts through the NHS in England without a full-time Registered Nurse.


Figures from the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) show a 29% overall decline in applications to undergraduate courses since 2015, when the bursary was cut by the Government.

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.

A new law is needed.

The report states that in order 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.

Figures included in the report reveal that the number of nursing staff has consistently failed to keep up with the dramatic rise in demand for services and the number of emergency admissions.

The report finally makes a further call for legal clarity on the roles, responsibilities, as well as accountabilities, for workforce planning and supply.

In September, after pressure from RCN members, NHS England and NHS Improvement asked the Government for clarity over who is accountable for the nursing workforce.

‘Nurses are working harder than ever’.

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 43k 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.

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NHS calls for clarity on who is accountable for the nursing workforce

Figures suggest there are around 40,000 unfilled nursing vacancies throughout the NHS in England.



Working nurses in the CCU

Healthcare leaders are calling for legislation to be included in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech.

NHS England and NHS Improvement have called on the Government to clarify who is accountable for the nursing workforce and the chronic problems it’s currently facing.

Following ongoing pressure from nursing unions, the two organisations met today and recommend that the government should “revisit with partners whether national responsibilities and duties in relation to workforce functions are sufficiently clear.”


With around 40,000 unfilled nursing vacancies in the NHS in England and thousands more throughout social care, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) believes the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care should be legally accountable for the workforce.

Along with other health care leaders, Dame Donna Kinnair, Chief Executive & General Secretary of the RCN, written to the Government calling for the legislation proposed by NHS England and NHS Improvement to be included in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech.

Staff shortages have reached ‘alarming levels’.

Responding to the news, Dame Donna Kinnair said: “We are pleased that NHS England and NHS Improvement has recognised the concerns of RCN members and the public and has stated that the issue of accountability for workforce planning and supply remains an area that needs be resolved.”

“In the week after we have launched a major public facing campaign calling for investment in the nursing workforce as well as for accountability to be clarified in the law, yet again, the case is made for this to be taken seriously.

“We are clear that government is well placed to determine how accountability can be clarified in law.

Adding; “Staff shortages have reached alarming levels with at least 40,000 vacant registered nurse posts in the NHS in England alone with thousands more vacancies in public health and social care.

“We now hope government will listen to this message, as well as the voices of the thousands of members that responded to the NHS England engagement process, and bring forward this legislation, taking the opportunity to include accountability in government and throughout the health and care system, for workforce planning and supply.”

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