The NHS is in crisis, with a shortage of doctors, nurses and midwives crippling the health service across England.
A recent report by a cross-party group of MPs led by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt warned the government must tackle “the greatest workforce crisis in history in the NHS” as it deals with the after-effects of Covid-19.
The Health and Social Care Committee study criticised the absence of a long-term plan to address stalling recruitment and persistent short-staffing, adding that the NHS is currently in need of tens of thousands of workers.
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We have taken a look at NHS figures for Northamptonshire’s two acute NHS hospitals to see how the workforce has changed in recent years, as the crisis across the country deepened.
The latest figures from NHS Digital show there were the equivalent of 639 full-time doctors as of April at Northampton General Hospital, up from 607 last year and 481 in April 2016 – when comparable figures for all professions began – equating to a rise of 33 percent over the last six years.
At Kettering General Hospital, there were the equivalent of 518 full-time doctors, an increase from 512 last year and up up by 32 percent from 393 in April 2016.
Nationally, there were 128,000 FTE doctors in NHS trusts in April, 4,000 more than the year before and 24,000 more than in 2016.
But the workforce figures, which provide a snapshot overview, do not account for the number of health care workers who joined and left the NHS in between counts, nor do they indicate how staffing levels compare to demand for services.
The committee’s report said the NHS must still recruit a further 12,000 hospital doctors to address a current national shortfall while the British Medical Association called on the government to publish workforce projections, reduce medicine's gender pay gap and increase the supply of affordable childcare.
Emma Runswick, the BMA deputy chair of council, said: “If the Government continues to ignore this, or continued warnings from reports like this, the impact on health professionals, patients and the very health of our society does not bear thinking about.”
There are fewer midwives across the country than last year – the figures show there were the equivalent of 21,741 working full-time hours in April, down from 22,374 last year.
The MPs’ report says 2,000 more midwives are urgently needed to address staffing shortages.
At NGH there were 144 midwives in April – down from 166 last year — while KGH had 123 midwives, down from by 10 in a year.
The Royal College of Midwives says people are leaving the industry because “morale is shattered”.
Suzanne Tyler, executive director at the RCM, added: “Employers and the Government must step up, put in the resources, and show they really value their staff.”
Nurses and Health Visitors
The figures also show there were 1,343 nurses and health visitors at NGH and 1,224 at KGH in April.
NGH has seen an increase from 1,299 last year and 1,065 at the start of the pandemic.
At KGH, the number is up from 1,066 in 2021 and 860 in 2020.
But the committee says there is a vast shortage of nurses nationally, with the NHS needing to urgently recruit more than 50,000 nurses and midwives.
In England, there were 319,000 FTE nurses and health visitors in April – up from 310,000 the year before and 285,000 in 2016.
The Royal College of Nursing said persistent understaffing “poses a serious risk to staff and patient safety” and urged the Government to take immediate action.
Patricia Marquis, director of the RCN, said the report highlighted unacceptable pay for some NHS nurses who are struggling to feed their families and pay their rent, adding it “should make the Government rethink the latest pay deal that follows a decade of real terms pay cuts”.
Understaffing is not the only issue facing the NHS workforce.
Different NHS Digital figures show trusts are still grappling with staff sickness, as the absence rate across all roles nationally rose to 6 percent in March – the fourth highest month since the pandemic began and well above pre-pandemic levels of 4.1 percent in March 2019.
At both NGH and KGH, more than six percent of full-time staff days were lost due to sickness absence in March. In 2019, the rate stood at around four percent.
The RCN said that the high absence figures were “yet more evidence of the need for drastic action and investment in the nursing workforce”.
NHS vacancies have also increased more in the year to March than any 12-month period since records began in 2018.
Separate data reveals the NHS had 106,000 FTE vacancies at the end of March, up from 76,000 the year prior.
These include almost 39,000 nursing vacancies, over 4,000 more than 12 months ago.
In the Midlands, there were 20,486 total vacancies as of 31 March – up from 15,441 a year earlier – including 7,797 for nurses.
What the Government has said
The Department of Health and Social Care said it has commissioned NHS England to develop a long-term workforce plan.
A spokesperson said: “We are growing the health and social care workforce, with over 4,000 more doctors, and 9,600 more nurses compared to last year, and over 1,400 more doctors in general practice compared to March 2019.
“As we continue to deliver on our commitment to recruit 50,000 more nurses by 2024, we are also running a £95 million recruitment drive for maternity services.”