The pressure rises on Andrew Lansley

The Health Secretary failed to rebut the charge that his reforms are "a disruption and a distraction

The coalition's decision to embark on the biggest reorganisation of the NHS in its history always sat uneasily with the need for the service to make record efficiency savings of £20bn. Indeed, the project was once succinctly described by the British Medical Journal as "mad". Now, the health select committee, chaired by the former Conservative health secretary Stephen Dorrell, has warned that the reforms are acting as a "disruption and distraction" and are hindering the NHS's ability to make savings. The committee argues that the health service is relying on short-term cuts and "salami-slicing" to save money, instead of re-thinking the way care is delivered. It all sounds much like the "perfect storm" that Hamish Meldrum, the head of the British Medical Association, spoke of in his interview with NS editor Jason Cowley in this week's magazine.

"It is self-defeating to cut services for patients in order to then re-invest to improve them", an anxious-sounding Andrew Lansley declared on the Today programme this morning (see below). But that is exactly what the Health Secretary stands accused of doing. Moreover, he failed to rebut the central charge that his reforms are undermining the NHS's attempt to save £4bn a year.

Lansley: NHS efficiency savings being done "the right way" (mp3)

David Cameron worked hard in opposition to convince the public that the Conservatives could be trusted with the NHS but it has become one of the biggest headaches for his government. Lansley's chaotic reforms have destroyed Cameron's ambition to depoliticise the issue. As Lord Ashcroft recently observed in his report Project Blueprint: Winning a Conservative majority in 2015, "nobody seemed to know why the reforms were needed and how, even in theory, they were supposed to improve things for patients." Just 20 per cent of voters believe that the NHS is "safe in David Cameron's hands" and Labour has established a 12-point lead over the Tories on health policy.

So, as Lenin asked, what is to be done? Lansley's opponents are determined to see the bill dropped but the widely-respected Dorrell insisted on Today that it was too late to go back. A dramatic U-turn would cause even more disruption, he suggested.

Lansley's own future is less certain. The Health Secretary has failed in the eyes of NHS staff and increasingly lacks the political authority needed to explain and defend the reforms. Should Chris Huhne's legal travails force Cameron to reshuffle his cabinet, he may well take an opportunity to move the discredited Lansley.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The NHS's sustainability is under threat if more isn't done to look after its staff

More work is needed to develop the health service's most precious resource.

As the NHS nears its 70th anniversary, the time is ripe for a workforce rescue plan. Staffing worries, even more than funding pressures, are the biggest cause of concern for NHS trust leaders. There are not enough trained health workers in the UK to meet today’s needs, let alone those of the future.

Demands on hospitals, mental health and community trusts, and ambulance services are growing. More patients need treatment. Increasingly, they require complex care, with specialist expertise. This is not just about numbers. We need a clinical workforce that is skilled and equipped to work in new ways to deal with the changing needs of the population it serves. 

That means improving the supply of people coming to work for the NHS, and doing more to develop and motivate them so they want to stay. These problems are not new but the scale of the challenge has reached a tipping point which threatens the future sustainability of the NHS.

Ministers rightly point out that the NHS in England has more clinical staff than ever before, but numbers have not kept pace with rising demand. The official "shortfall rate" for nurses and midwives across England is close to 10 per cent, and in some places significantly higher. Part of this is down to the recognition, after the events at troubled health trust Mid Staffordshire, of the importance of safe staffing levels. Yet for successive years during the coalition government, the number of nurse training recruits fell.

Far from being a problem just for hospitals, there are major nursing shortages in mental health and community trusts. Between 2009 and 2016 the number of district nurses employed by the NHS in England fell by more than 40 per cent. Just as the health service tries to accelerate plans for more treatment closer to home, in key parts of the workforce the necessary resources are shrinking.

There are also worrying gaps in the supply of doctors. Even as the NHS gears up for what may prove to be its toughest winter yet, we see worrying shortfalls in A&E consultants. The health service is rightly committed to putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health. But many trusts are struggling to fill psychiatry posts. And we do not have enough GPs.

A key part of the problem is retention. Since 2010/11 there has been a worrying rise in “leaver rates” among nurses, midwives, ambulance staff and scientific technical staff. Many blame the pressures of workload, low staffing levels and disillusionment with the quality of care. Seventy per cent of NHS staff stay on for extra hours. Well over a third say they have felt unwell in the past year because of work-related stress.

Add in cuts to real basic pay, year after year, and it is hardly surprising that some are looking to other opportunities and careers outside the public sector. We need a strategy to end pay restraint in the NHS.

There is also a worrying demographic challenge. Almost one in three qualified nurses, midwives and health visitors is aged 50 or older. One in five GPs is at least 55. We have to give them reasons to stay.

NHS trusts have made important strides in engaging with their workforce. Staff ratings on being able to report concerns, feeling trusted to do their jobs, and being able to suggest improvements are encouraging. But there are still cultural problems – for example around discrimination and bullying – which must be addressed locally and nationally.

The NHS can no longer be sure that overseas recruits will step in to fill workforce gaps. In the early 2000s many trusts looked beyond Europe to meet nursing shortages. More recently, as tougher immigration and language rules took hold, a growing proportion came from the EU – though not enough to plug the gap.

Now we have all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. We need urgent clarity on the status of current EU nationals working in the health and care systems. And we must recognise that for the foreseeable future, NHS trusts will need support to recruit and retain staff from overseas. The government says it will improve the home-grown supply, but that will clearly take time.

These problems have developed in plain sight. But leadership on this has been muddled or trumped by worries over funding. Responsibility for NHS workforce strategy is disjointed. We need a co-ordinated, realistic, long-term strategy to ensure that frontline organisations have the right number of staff with the right skills in the right place to deliver high quality care.

We must act now. This year's long-delayed workforce plan – to be published soon by Health Education England – could be a good place to start. But what we need is a more fundamental approach – with a clear vision of how the NHS must develop its workforce to meet these challenges, and a commitment to make it happen. 

Saffron Cordery is the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers