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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.