The high profile Long Term NHS Workforce Plan has been cautiously welcomed by the staffing industry as the details of the plan have been studied and analyses.

Deputy Chief Executive at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC) Kate Shoesmith said the industry had waited too long for the plan and that there is a desperate need for this, not least because their data shows more than 68,000 unfilled job vacancies for nurses in June alone – far more job ads than for nursery, primary and secondary teaching professionals combined.

“Inaction by government means this recruitment crisis is sadly engrained, as our recent Report on Jobs shows that permanent and temporary vacancies in the healthcare sector have now risen for 34 months in a row,” she notes.

“NHS England wanting to reduce their expensive staff bills is understandable but has been unachievable because of its failure to attract and retain staff,” she added. “This has left agencies playing a more crucial role in staffing than their original purpose to plug gaps. Rather than condemn and sideline agencies, these agencies show the NHS how to give healthcare workers flexible working, more regular pay, feelings of esteem and more frequent time away from the hectic frontline.

“Agency is actually not the most expensive option when it comes to staffing solutions,” said Shoesmith. “The cost of the temporary workforce has been increasing sharply since the pandemic but this largely due not to agencies but to the NHS’ increasing spend elsewhere, from staff banks to off-framework contracts, where the systems put in place to manage costs have failed.”

Tania Bowers, Global Public Policy Director at APSCo also welcomed the focus on training many more doctors, nurses and affiliated skills but noted it could still take 15 years to have a real impact. “The NHS is in crisis and needs immediate action to alleviate this,” she said.

“Increasing training and diversifying routes into healthcare employment will only be effective if people choose to practice their profession in the NHS and build a career within it,” said Bowers. “The NHS is struggling with extreme worker dissatisfaction, as evidenced by strike action and demotivation, not helped by recent OECD data evidencing that the UK has the lowest ratio of practising doctors per 1,000 people.

“The UK needs to show it has a globally competitive healthcare sector that people want to work in. Reducing the reliance on globally trained healthcare professionals during a staffing shortage isn’t viable.

“One aim of the reform is to reduce NHS providers’ reliance on agency workers, currently critical to fill resourcing gaps,” said Bowers. “Members report these gaps are partly created by staff choosing to leave the service and work as locums or to reduce their permanent hours to supplement pay through better paid agency work, a necessity for them due to the surging cost of living. Rather than the agencies driving the demand, it is candidates choosing to work this way, reducing the access the NHS providers have to staff directly. In any workforce as complex as the NHS there will always be a need for agency workers and government must recognise the sector as part of a well-managed solution.”

Bowers detailed a number of shorter term steps the government could take to help with the workforce situation. This includes standardised compliance checks and onboarding processes across the trusts, primary care and social care, to facilitate efficient, free movement between care settings; reform of the apprenticeship levy to allow reskilling and upskilling of existing staff through flexible, modular training; and a focus on working conditions as well as pay and benefits to remotivate the current workforce.

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