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The NHS workforce may have grown but so have its vacancies

Despite staffing levels increasing over the past 13 years, the health service’s supply is not keeping up with demand.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

In June, after a year’s delay, the government revealed the NHS Workforce Plan – its strategy to address the chronic staff shortages in the health service. 

Tackling Britain’s ageing and increasingly ill population is one of many challenges the NHS faces: there are record job vacancy levels (131,596 as of September 2022) and staff turnover (169,512 in 2022). How does the 15-year NHS Workforce Plan aim to counteract this?

The three pillars of the plan – which will cost £2.4bn for its first five years – are “train, retain and reform” for a deadline of 2031. On training, a new generation of NHS staff is to be brought in to an expanding workforce – with the new funds set to double medical places for doctors and increase places for trainee nurses and midwives by 24,000. Other initiatives include establishing an apprenticeship scheme for doctors.

Retention and reform can be rolled into one: to stop its brain-drain of talent and personnel, the NHS plan proposes better opportunities for career development, and more options for flexible working. There’s no word on meeting the pay demands of unions in ongoing industrial disputes.

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[See also: Labour's overtime pay plan for doctors is welcome - but not sustainable]

Will this be enough to counter deteriorating public health? By 2037, if current negative public health trends continue, the NHS warns that “two-thirds of those over 65 will have multiple health conditions and a third of those people will also have mental health needs”, which will lead to “increasing complexity of service delivery”.

Though the NHS workforce has increased by 263,000 since 2010, the last few years have made clear that the current supply isn’t enough to meet demand, and that trend could continue. The government has called the NHS Workforce Plan a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to put staffing on a sustainable footing and improve patient care”. But without major, holistic interventions to improve public health – therefore reducing the load that the service has to deal with – the opportunity may be squandered.

This piece first appeared in a Spotlight Healthcare print report on 13 October 2023. Read it here.

[See also: How AI is speeding up diagnosis]

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