Official figures have revealed that the total number of Registered Nurses has fallen for the first time since 2013.
A study by leading thinktank, The King’s Fund, showed that in June 2016 there were 283,674 “full-time equivalent” nurses employed by the NHS in England but in June this year, there were 282,603 – a reduction of 1,071.
The King’s Fund said the figures were “worrying”, adding that having adequate nurses is “essential” for delivering safe, effective care for patients.
A combination of factors are said to be to blame; uncertainty around Brexit resulting in a "significant drop" in EU applications, the ongoing pay restraint of public sector workers and the changes to the NHS bursary system.
The King’s Fund also added that the number of NHS staff leaving as a result of ill-health and a poor work-life balance has also increased sharply, suggesting stress has been an additional cause.
The news comes only a week after the RCN called for an “urgent review” of hospital staffing levels after they warned patient safety and dignity is being put at risk by over-stretched services.
“The Government’s boasts of increasing nursing staff are starting to ring more than a little hollow. Since the stark warnings made by Robert Francis four years ago, Jeremy Hunt prided himself on rising numbers but this expert analysis reveals a worrying decline.
“Nursing staff are now blowing the whistle on falling standards and the risks to patients. When the NHS has never been busier, it is haemorrhaging experienced nurses at a faster rate than it can find new recruits. A lethal cocktail of extreme pressure inside the NHS, a collapse in European nurses and falling pay levels left the profession demoralised and people heading for the door.
“This analysis reinforces the need for mandated staffing levels and investment in nurse education. Health and care providers must give urgent assurances that services are safe for patients this winter. The decline is a direct result of years of poor decisions and excessive cost-cutting – we need a new law that makes Ministers and others accountable for proper workforce planning and safe and effective staffing levels.”
Last week Jeremy Hunt announced an increase in the number of training places for nurses as well as a "pay as you learn" style apprenticeship.