A senior health official has admitted there will be a shortage of nurses in the NHS for another four years after figures revealed that thousands of posts for doctors and nurses have not been filled.
The escalating NHS recruitment crisis is forcing more than two-thirds of trusts to look to migrants to fill vacancies, according to figures released after a freedom of information request by the BBC.
Ian Cumming, chief executive of Health Education England, said there would be a shortfall in nurses until at least 2020.
The figures showed that in December 2015, the NHS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had more than 23,443 vacant nursing posts and 6,207 vacancies for doctors.
That equates to a vacancy rate of 7% for doctors and 10% for nurses compared with an average vacancy rate of 2.7% for the general economy as assessed by the Office for National Statistics.
The figures also revealed a sharp increase in unfilled posts since 2013. The number of vacancies for doctors increased by 60% and nursing vacancies were up 50%.
The FoI request also revealed that 69% of NHS trusts were actively recruiting staff from abroad. Some are travelling as far as India and the Philippines to try to fill vacancies.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in February, Cumming said: “We certainly do recognise that there is a particular shortage of nurses, but also some other workforces within the NHS at the moment. The demand for nurses has gone up by 24,000 over the last three years.”
He explained that concerns about patient safety after the failings exposed in the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal had prompted trusts to try to recruit more qualified nurses.
Cumming said: “We are predicting that we will have supply and demand right for nurses for the NHS by about 2019/2020, but it does leave us with a gap between now and then. We train 20,000 nurses a year and if the demand goes up over and above what we normally have, by 24,000, we simply can’t fill those in one or two years.”
Cumming said about half the vacant nursing posts would be filled by qualified nurses on full-term contracts. The remainder would be filled by more expensive agency and temporary staff, and by recruitment from overseas.
He would not be drawn on whether the current shortfall amounted to a crisis. He pointed out that vacancy rates vary from 15% in some parts of London, to only 3% in the north-west and south-west of England.
Cumming also admitted that the number of overseas staff in the service was increasing. He added: “This isn’t a new phenomenon. Overseas nurses have always made a contribution to our NHS.”
But Cumming insisted that patient safety would not be compromised. He said: “There are more nurses employed in NHS hospitals now than there were two years ago. So the quality of care being delivered now is significantly better than it was two years ago. We aren’t where we want to be in terms of substantive staff, but most of these vacancies are being filled by temporary staff, therefore they are delivering care.”
The British Medical Association said the government’s dispute with junior doctors over a new contract would make the problem worse.
Dr Johann Malawana, chair of the BMA junior doctors committee, tweeted that the “staffing crisis” in the NHS was impossible to ignore.