NHS 'could end up short of 70,000 nurses'

By Paul Kelso, health correspondent

The NHS could be short of 70,000 nurses and 7,000 GPs within five years unless urgent action is taken to address a growing staffing crisis, according to analysis by health think tanks.

The report warns that existing nursing shortages could double and the shortfall of family doctors treble unless urgent measures are adopted in a new NHS workforce strategy, expected later this year.

The report, co-authored by the Nuffield Trust, the King's Fund and the Health Foundation, estimates the budget for training and developing staff will have to rise by at least £900m to address the widening workforce gap.

It recommends offering a £5,200 grant for living expenses to nurses in training, and tripling the number of postgraduates in training and bringing 5,000 more students onto nursing courses every year.

Even if these measures were adopted the report predicts another 5,000 nurses will still have to be recruited from abroad to ensure the new NHS long-term plan can be delivered.

That would require the government to offer "wide exceptions" to the salary restrictions set out in the post-Brexit immigration white paper, which set a minimum salary of £30,000 for foreign nationals seeking to work in the UK.

The think tanks conclude that the GP crisis is so severe that it cannot be closed within five years and the NHS will instead have to rely on other staff, including pharmacists and physiotherapists, to "routinely" ease pressure on general practice.

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Image: Pharmacists could end up taking on some work done by GPs

Even that ambition would require the recruitment of 6,000 new physiotherapists.

Staffing shortages are repeatedly cited by NHS managers in all areas of the health service as the greatest challenge they face.

Several NHS trust chief executives told Sky News this week that uncertainty over Brexit was compounding the problem, with many EU nurses returning home since the referendum in 2016.

The NHS is expected to set our how it will address the staffing crisis in a workforce implementation plan, possibly as soon as next month.

The Office for National Statistics said the NHS employed 1.67 million people in December last year.

Remarkably, the plan will be the first long-term workforce strategy the NHS has ever had.

Its funding will depend on the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn, when the funding for Health Education England will be determined.

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Image: The NHS workforce implementation plan could be revealed as soon as next month

Anita Charlesworth, director of research and economics at the Health Foundation, said: "The NHS doesn't have enough nurses today and without action this problem is going to get significantly worse over the coming years.

"The workforce is the make or break issue for the health service and unless staffing shortages are substantially reduced the recent NHS long-term plan can only be a wish list."

Richard Murray, chief executive of the King's Fund, said social care would also be affected.

"Social care is heavily reliant on overseas recruitment, but the government's post-Brexit migration proposals risk limiting this vital source of workers," he said.

"The government should go back to the drawing board to devise a route for care workers to enter the UK and develop a more sustainable funding model for social care."

Dido Harding, chair of NHS Improvement, said: "I welcome this report which will help inform the development of our workforce implementation plan, the interim plan for which we expect to publish in April."

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