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The NHS Staffing Emergency: A Call to Arms  

The problem: under-staffing and burn-out  

In April this year, Miriam Deakin, Director of Policy and Strategy at the NHS, wrote an article for the British Medical Journal about the dangers of NHS staff shortages and burnout.  

Miriam wrote that: 

“The last two years have undoubtedly been the most challenging period in NHS’s history. Staff continue to work flat out, doing their best for patients, but many of the problems we face now existed long before the pandemic and won’t disappear overnight”  

The cross-party select committee report at a glance  

Today, the BBC reported that England is short of 12, ooo hospital doctors, and more than 50, 000 nurses and midwives, with MPs on the cross-party Health and Social Care Select Committee who prepared the report stating that this is the “worst workforce crisis in NHS history”.  

Chair of the select committee and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt stated that tackling the considerable shortage must be a “top priority” for the new Prime Minister when they come into office in September.  

Hunt added that “persistent understaffing in the NHS poses a serious risk to staff and patient safety, a situation compounded by the absence of a long-term plan by the government to tackle it”.  

Urgent action is needed  

The report criticises the “absence of a credible government strategy” on NHS-wide understaffing and criticises ministers for delaying a blueprint it says is urgently needed to address critical gaps in almost every area of care.  

The report also found that NHS pensions arrangements mean that some senior doctors are better off retiring or reducing their working hours. The MPs labelled this circumstance a “national scandal” and called for swift action to change the rules. 

Under-staffing in the social care sector  

If the situation in the NHS is not worrying enough, the report found that conditions were “regrettably worse” in social care, with 95% of care providers struggling to hire staff and 75% finding it difficult to retain existing workers.  

Consequently, the report called for HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to be more proactive in enforcing the minimum wage, amid concerns that 17,000 care workers were paid below the legal rate of £9.50 an hour.  

Conservative Leadership Contest 

Given the significant amount of work that needs to be done quickly to help to alleviate NHS staffing shortages and staff dissatisfaction, NHS policy has become a key topic in the current Conservative leadership contest between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.  

This weekend Sunak highlighted the 6.6 million-patient backlog of NHS care, long delays patients face getting care and growing numbers of people forced to pay for private treatment “with a gun to their heads”.  

Recently, Truss has pledged to scrap the 1.25% rise in national insurance – the “health and social care levy” – that began in April and is expected to yield £12bn a year, mainly for the NHS.  

Empty promises?  

This is not the first time that voters have been allured with catch-all promises to save the NHS from failure and under-delivery.  

The committee heard evidence from former Health Secretary Sajid Javid who resigned earlier this month in the biggest government resignation since 1932 that the government was not on track to deliver its manifesto commitment to increase the number of GPs in England by 6,000. 

It is clear that we should be critical of any promises made by the next Prime Minister, as all too often in politics, promises are made and not delivered. While the government has struggled with the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID in recent years, it is more important than ever that it gets back on track if it wants to maintain a credible image with voters in the next election.  

Final thoughts 

It is amply clear that significant and urgent action is needed to ensure that the understaffing issues the NHS are solved both in the short and long term. Yet it is equally clear that there is no quick fix to the problem, and that the government needs to take seriously the experiences of current and former NHS employees.  

While it may take years to get NHS staffing and satisfaction numbers back on track, it is important that the government funds further education training in a wider variety of roles, in the medical, technological, policy and management sector.  

While the NHS currently offer apprenticeships for several professions including Nursing and Maternity and Paediatric Support and Allied Health Profession support, they should consider extending the numbers, increasing the pay, and ensuring that apprentices want to stay with the NHS after their training is complete.  

As Miriam Deakin, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, compellingly argued:  

“The answer is staring everyone in the face: The government must come up with a fully-funded, long-term workforce plan for the NHS”, and that plan must equate into clear and effective delivery.  

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