The fall in nursing numbers is a complete disaster

Without swift work to rectify this problem, patient care will suffer.

Following recent reports regarding a significant rise in emergency hospital admissions and higher patient mortality rates over the weekend due to a lack of senior doctors, we are now faced with the abysmal fact of fewer training nurses. Research by Nursing Times (NT) earlier this month revealed that nurse training places have been cut by more than 2,500 in the past three years. Professor David Green, Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Worcester commented: "We are heading straight for a national disaster in two to three years’ time." Worse still, Strategic Health Authority figures obtained by NT showed that there were over two thousand more nurses opting to work in a community based setting as opposed to acute care.   

During my time in the NHS I have worked in primary and secondary care with the latter including time spent in acute medical, high dependency and intensive care environments. And I have witnessed first-hand the considerable strain placed on the nursing profession. In an acute medical setting for example, a nurse would be typically responsible for at least four to six patients, sometimes even more. And in the acute setting, a patient’s clinical state can change at any moment. As doctors, following initial patient assessment, we put plans in place from a management perspective to ensure recovery. But due to large patient numbers and demands from outpatient clinics it is difficult to be on the shop floor monitoring each patient around the clock - a sad fact but unfortunately true.

In a high dependency or intensive care setting, the situation however is very different. Doctors are always present and patients benefit from one to one nursing allowing for effective patient assessment. You may argue that these types of patients obviously need a more advanced and rigid monitoring regime and you are probably right. But ward patients also rely heavily on nurses to be their eyes and ears, alerting doctors to any concern they or of course the nurse may have.

An afternoon ward based scenario to help illustrate my point; a four patient bay being manned by one nurse.

Patient A has been admitted with chest pain which initially settled but has now recurred and is more severe in nature. The nurse must do a new set of observations, namely blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen saturations, as well as an electrocardiogram (ECG), give pain relief which has been previously prescribed and alert the doctor responsible for that patient about the change in clinical state.

Patient B, a chronic alcoholic admitted following an alcohol binge, starts to vomit large amounts of blood. He feels faint, his blood pressure is falling and he is at risk of cardio respiratory arrest. The nurse, in addition to recording new observations, will need to insert a cannula and start intravenous fluids if the doctor responsible for this patient is busy and unable to reach the patient straight away.

Patient C has been admitted with renal failure due to not eating and drinking. He has a history of severe depression and is refusing to take his medication. He has been referred to the on call psychiatrist but while waiting for a review is threatening to kill himself and other patients on the ward.

And Patient D, who has been admitted following a fall at home but is now suitable for discharge. He is becoming frustrated by the time it has taken to receive his discharge paperwork and medications. It has been two hours now and he wants to make an urgent complaint about the care he has received, or lack of, to the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS).

You may find it hard to believe but the above ward scenario is certainly not far from the truth.

Not only are nurses expected to respond to changing patient conditions they are also responsible for patients’ personal needs, administering appropriate medication, referring patients to other multidisciplinary staff such as a physiotherapist or occupational therapist and for facilitating discharge to name but a few.

With falling nursing numbers, the government should take heed and put concrete plans in place to ensure this situation is rectified and done so quickly. The workforce is already stretched and I for one fail to see how patient care will not be grossly affected.

Neel Sharma is a Medical Doctor and Honorary Clinical Lecturer at the Centre for Medical Education, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry

Great Ormond Street Hospital nurses perform during the Olympic opening ceremony. Photograph: Getty Images
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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.