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Workforce Shortages: Rural Areas

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2022

2. What recent discussions he has had with relevant stakeholders on tackling health and care workforce shortages in rural areas. (901946)

Ministers and officials regularly engage with a wide range of organisations to ensure that we are alert to the staffing issues facing the NHS and care sector across our country. We have increased training places for doctors, nurses and allied health professionals and increased access to clinical placements across a wide range of settings. We have also developed apprenticeships and blended learning opportunities to improve access to training that supports remote and rural communities.

In Devon, workforce shortages are acute. One in 10 nursing places remains unfilled, one in eight mental health roles across the south-west is vacant, and there are no dental practices taking on new NHS patients. That gap is too big to be bridged through current training and recruitment plans. Will the Minister create as a matter of urgency an innovative new career pathway, reducing the time to get new staff to the frontline?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is a passionate campaigner on this issue. I recently responded to a debate on this issue led by her. She also chairs the all-party parliamentary group on rural health and social care. She is right, and we have developed an apprenticeship route for almost all professions in our NHS, allowing people to join the health and care sector immediately on an earn-as-you-learn basis. We continue to work hard to develop pathways into health and care professions, including via our groundbreaking blended online learning programmes.

In terms of district nursing and community midwifery, is the Minister aware that there are real security concerns about entering homes alone, and that that plays into resignations in many rural areas? Will he address that by providing security devices so that rural, isolated nurses and staff know that they are not alone and are safe?

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. It is not something that has come across my desk in the two days I have had this portfolio, but I will of course meet local integrated care system leaders, and if it is something that they are calling for, I will look to see what we can do to assist.

Worcestershire and Herefordshire are rural areas that suffer from a shortage of doctors at both primary and secondary levels. My hon. Friend is an excellent Minister: will he meet me to discuss the strong case for funding places at the Three Counties Medical School in Worcester—a ready-made solution to the problem—which has already seen 851 applications from home students?

I thank my hon. Friend for his compliment. He raises an important issue. I know that my predecessor not only agreed to meet him, but undertook to visit Worcester. I would be happy to make the same commitment.

Wirral and Cheshire have many rural areas, with all the same problems that have been described. When I met healthcare professionals on Friday, they were clear that the problem is not just recruitment, it is also retention. Which of the changes that have happened over the past 12 years to make working life for NHS staff less good than it needs to be will he reverse?

Of course retention is as important as recruitment. Since September, we have had the non-repayable training grant, which is a minimum of £5,000 per academic year, additional funding for certain courses, and extra funding worth up to £3,000 for eligible students to cover childcare costs. That is, of course, on recruitment. On retention, we are looking at more access to mental health support and high-quality support while in training and clinical placement, but of course there is more to do.