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 […]

Ian Snug
27 February 2018

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.

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