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NHS Workforce Vacancies

Volume 659: debated on Tuesday 7 May 2019

3. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of workforce vacancies throughout the NHS. (910715)

The NHS employs more staff than at any time in its 70-year history. Posts may be vacant for a variety of reasons, including maternity and career breaks. The latest data shows that as of December 2018 about 80% of nursing vacancies and 85% of medical vacancies are filled by a combination of bank and agency staff.

Recent data from NHS Digital shows that there are 720 fewer GPs in the east midlands than just two years ago. According to NHS England, each month thousands of people wait more than four weeks for a face-to-face GP appointment in Nottingham. In January, 3,206 people had to wait more than 28 days between making the appointment and seeing their doctor. Ultimately, that is leaving the GPs we do have overwhelmed and overworked. I know myself that it is creating huge pressures on the emergency department at Queen’s Medical Centre. What is the Minister going to do to change that system?

The NHS long-term plan will set out vital strategic frameworks to ensure that the needs for the next 10 years are met. The hon. Lady will know that we are training an extra 5,000 GPs to work in primary care and general practice. If she writes to me about the specifics of the numbers she mentioned in respect of Nottingham, I will be happy to respond.

Those of us who are campaigning to reopen a full obstetric unit at Horton General Hospital know how important the workforce are to safety in our NHS. At an excellent meeting today, Baroness Harding set out some of the things we can do to increase our workforce, one of which was much better leadership and career planning for the staff we are already retaining in the NHS so that they want to stay longer. What is the Department doing about that?

As my hon. Friend has heard, the Secretary of State commissioned Baroness Harding to bring forward the interim workforce plan. One of the workstreams was looking at retention and the staff we currently have. More than 52,000 nurses are in undergraduate training, and it is essential that they stay in the NHS after training. What Baroness Harding outlined today will ensure that that happens.

Can the Minister confirm today’s Daily Mail report that the NHS plans to recruit thousands of overseas nurses over the next five years? How much of that shortage has been caused by the exodus of EU nationals from the NHS, and how much of it by the Government’s disastrous decision to abolish nursing bursaries?

I will not comment on the specifics of a leak from an outdated version of the plan. The NHS has always recruited nurses internationally and there are no plans to change that. The workforce plan will set out how more nurses, doctors and nursing associates will be recruited and retained inside the NHS.

Many surgeries in my constituency augment the work of GPs with nurse practitioners. Will the Minister join me in praising the work of nurse practitioners and say what more the Government could do to grow their number so that they can continue their excellent work in surgeries around the country?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Nurse practitioners do an extraordinarily valuable job across the country. The Government are committed to training more nurses and more nursing practitioners. As I said in an earlier answer, that will be set out in the workforce plan.

The workforce shortfall is not evenly distributed across the NHS either geographically or by specialty. The Minister will know that there are particularly serious nursing shortfalls in learning disability and community services. He will also know of the implications of shortfalls—for example, for the ambition to deliver 75% of cancer diagnoses at stages 1 and 2. Will he look again at the evidence on mature students and the impact of losing bursaries on that section of the workforce? Will he meet me to discuss that?

The Chair of the Select Committee is right: the vacancies are not evenly spread and are of particular concern in learning difficulties and a number of other areas. Of course we want to ensure that mature students come back to and stay within the health service. That is why a number of incentives are being put in place to encourage, recruit and retain mature students. I would, of course, be happy to meet her to discuss this matter in more depth.

I appreciate the Minister’s comments about the need for retention and morale-boosting in the NHS. Does he agree that constantly going around fabricating threats of closures when no such threats exist, or talking down the NHS—as some politicians do—does not exactly help recruitment and retention either?

My hon. Friend is completely right. One would have hoped that all Members on both sides of the House celebrate the fact that the number of nurses and the number of doctors in the NHS are now higher than they have ever been in its 70-year history, and that the Government are backing that up with a commitment to invest £33.9 billion.

Cuts in lifetime and annual pension tax allowances are causing senior doctors to retire earlier and younger consultants to avoid working extra hours, as they can end up paying more in tax than they earn from the extra hours of work. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor about the fact that these recent changes are driving doctors from the profession and increasing workforce shortages?

The hon. Lady raises a very important matter. The Government recognise the concerns that have been expressed by NHS doctors, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is engaging in numerous conversations with the Chancellor. I am reluctant to give a running commentary on the nature of those internal discussions, but I can say that we hope to resolve the matter soon.