Urgent national action is still needed to tackle workforce shortages and the unsustainable pressures on health workers if efforts to reduce the elective care backlog in the NHS are to be successful, organisations representing NHS employers have suggested.
NHS England today set out its plan for tackling the backlog of elective care that has worsened during the pandemic, setting the NHS stretching targets to deliver more procedures and scans and cut the amount of time patients are waiting for care.
By July 2022, no one will wait longer than two years for an elective treatment and by April 2023 waits of over 18 months will be eliminated, the plan states. No patient will wait longer than a year for treatment by 2025.
Announcing the publication of the plan in parliament today, health secretary Sajid Javid said the government was “doing everything in our power to make sure that we have even more clinicians on the front line”.
“We now have more doctors and nurses working in the NHS than ever before; we have a record number of students at medical school; and a record number of students applying to train as nurses,” he said.
“The plan sets out what more we will be doing, including more healthcare support workers and the recruitment and deployment of NHS reservists.”
The plan states that the NHS will recruit new staff, with the addition of more than 10,000 nurses from overseas this financial year and 5,000 healthcare support workers.
It will increase workforce capacity by training more allied health professionals in critical care and making greater use of artificial intelligence to free up imaging staff time.
NHS staff shortages
There will also be greater flexible working between teams and trusts. For example, registered nurses working across acute and community services.
However, Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said that although trusts will be working “flat out” to clear backlogs, NHS delays will not reduce without a sustainable workforce strategy.
“This is not being addressed with anything like the urgency it demands,” said Cordery.
“Trust leaders will be going flat out to meet the challenges presented by long waits but we need to have the staff in place to achieve all of these ambitions. Workforce shortages and the resulting unsustainable workloads on existing staff, are the biggest challenges facing trusts right now. We need urgent national action to tackle this.”
Workforce shortages and the resulting unsustainable workloads on existing staff, are the biggest challenges facing trusts right now. We need urgent national action to tackle this.” – Saffrom Cordery, NHS Providers
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the absence of a “fully costed” workforce strategy is holding back progress.
“The NHS is committed to an ambitious reform agenda and in delivering value for money to the taxpayer but the backlog of long waits will not be cleared by March 2025 and it will be impossible to carry out 9 million more tests and checks if there are not the right number and mix of staff in place,” said Taylor.
He said “big questions” remained about how the expanded surgical hubs and community diagnostic centres announced in the plan would be staffed.
“We must also remember that today’s plan focuses on the backlog in elective care, but there are significant backlogs of care in other parts of the NHS, including in mental health, community and primary care services. These need urgent focus too,” he said.
The plan also outlines proposals to:
- Continue to deploy more than 17,000 NHS reservists, who act as a contingency workforce
- Support trusts to make temporary staffing banks more attractive, paying them promptly for working these shifts and proactively supporting temporary staff, including by offering more permanent employment or development opportunities
- Ensure staff feel valued and supported to look after their own health and wellbeing, via 40 mental health hubs and self-help apps and helplines
- Run more regional pension seminars to help staff remain in the NHS
- Address the root causes of non-Covid-related sickness absence and helping NHS healthcare providers to more consistently manage absence
- Support providers to make effective use of e-rostering, e-job planning, digital staff passports and other workforce optimisation tools to maximise the capacity of the current clinical workforce through effective planning and deployment, and by optimising the skills of multidisciplinary teams.