nurse making hospital bed

Staff shortages across the NHS are having a “serious and detrimental impact” on services and will impede efforts to tackle major care backlogs and improve access to services, according to a new survey by NHS Providers.

The survey was sent to a range of health leaders, including chief executives, medical directors and nursing directors, and was also open online from 14 to 23 of March. There were 236 responses from trust leaders, accounting for 67 per cent of the provider sector.

The health leaders expressed their concerns over current NHS plans to address workforce shortages, with 89 per cent strongly disagreeing or disagreeing that at a national level, the NHS has robust plans to tackle workforce shortages in the short to medium term. This demonstrates the need for a clear strategy from the government to manage the estimate 110,000 vacancies across the NHS and to meet the long-term needs of the NHS workforce.

The survey of trust leaders by NHS Providers, the body representing every NHS hospital, mental health, community, and ambulance trust in England, also found:

  • Almost all trust leaders (97 per cent) say that current workforce shortages are having a serious and detrimental impact on services
  • Almost all (98 per cent) say that shortages will slow down progress in tackling the growing care backlog
  • Almost all (97 per cent) say the lack of certainty over workforce supply may impact the ability of the NHS to retain staff.

Health leaders also conveyed worries that the lack of certainty over adequate staffing over the next five to ten years will significantly increase ‘burnout’ and affect staff morale. This can also have a negative impact on patients, with health leaders stating that ‘shortages across professions are leading to some services being reduced or closed.’

According to a significant number of respondents, the uncertainty over staffing means it will take longer to meet stretching backlog recovery targets and reduce patient wait times, and there will be a negative impact on the quality of care.

An overwhelming number (88 per cent) of Trust leaders also want the government to be required by law to publish regular, independent assessments of how many health and social care staff are needed to keep pace with projected demand over the next five, ten and 20 years. NHS Providers supported an amendment to the health and care bill which was passed by the House of Lords last month for this to take place.

The Deputy Chief Executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said:

“NHS trusts and their overstretched staff are working incredibly hard to cut waiting times against a backdrop of worryingly high numbers of COVID-19 cases in hospitals, but they’re doing this with one hand tied behind their backs.

“Our survey makes clear the grave consequences of staffing gaps for quality of care, patient safety and staff morale. 

“The message from trust leaders to the government is loud and clear. Take this once in a decade opportunity to tackle long-standing failures in workforce planning and accept the solution offered by the workforce amendment when the health and care bill returns to the House of Commons.

“We need the government to commit to publishing regular assessments of how many health and social care staff are needed to keep pace with projected demand over the next five, ten and 20 years. This action would give NHS staff immediate hope that the government is taking this problem seriously, helping to retain those in the workforce today.

“A failure to do so would almost inevitably compound staff shortages and workforce ‘burnout’, just as the NHS strives to reduce backlogs in care. The government must set out how it plans to tackle 110,000 NHS staff vacancies and make workloads sustainable. A long-term plan for a resilient workforce is vital.”