NHS staff struggle as Government declares victory

NHS

The Government has announced it is on track to deliver 26,000 more primary care staff, as set out in its manifesto pledge. But with record waiting times and millions unable to access treatment and care, we take a closer look at the state of NHS staffing and recruitment.

According to recent data, the Government is well over halfway to delivering on its manifesto commitment of having 26,000 more primary care staff by March 2024. The influx of primary care staff includes clinical pharmacists, mental health practitioners, nursing and physician associates, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, podiatrists and social prescribing link workers, who refer patients to community services to support their wellbeing.

The government has claimed that this success continues as part of a £520 million package to improve access and expand GP capacity during the pandemic.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said:

“I am hugely grateful for the tireless work of GPs and primary care staff who act as the ‘front door’ to the NHS and provide advice and support to their patients. We have been working closely with the NHS to continue building the workforce and tackle the Covid backlog.

With over 18,200 more primary care staff already, we are on track to deliver 26,000 more by 2024, backed by record funding to help increase capacity and get patients the care they need more quickly.”

How accurate is this?

The government’s self-praise of delivering their manifesto pledge has, in mild terms, been rejected by civil society and healthcare organisations. The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) have commented that a closer look at the data shows that progress in recruiting primary care staff is largely limited to healthcare assistants and support staff, and whilst important this does not make up for the lack of GPs across the country.

In response, Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the RGCP said:

“In general practice, we want to be able to provide the high-quality care that our patients deserve. However, we simply do not have enough GPs and members of the wider practice team to manage the ever-growing need for care, and unfortunately, we are seeing this impact on some patients, with burgeoning waiting lists to access GP services. General practice is the backbone of the NHS, carrying out the bulk of NHS patient contacts and in turn alleviating pressures across the service. We need the Government to make good on its promise of 6,000 GPs”.

The RCGP has more widely called for the Government to provide more flexibility in recruitment and support for integrating staff.

The bigger picture

Any claims to progress in fixing the stark backlog and record waiting times seems a hard sell to a public unable to access treatment and care and an NHS reeling from the pandemic. The health service is simply unable to cope with the current pressure, hamstringed by years of austerity and budget cuts. With further cuts planned, an ageing population and six million people seeking treatment – the outlook for NHS staff looks very bleak. With the lowest GPs per capita in Europe and widespread burn out of front-of-line staff the Government’s ‘delivery’ falls on deaf ears.

Final thought

The reaction to the Government’s claims conveys the reality of the situation on the front line. Statistics of recruitment can be manipulated to project progress in one area, whilst others continue to fail – particularly the worryingly low level of GPs.

The priority issue facing the NHS is staffing. The overstretched and burnt out workforce is still reeling from the pandemic and must face even further pressure as waiting lists become a political problem. The UK is failing in recruitment and retention of staff to support the pressure of the public, rendering financial investment redundant unless this is improved. Given the NHS currently spends over 30% of its staffing budget on agency staff, the solution for the Government could be found in investing in its people rather than papering over the cracks.

Photo Credit: Roo Pitt from Norwich

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