Plans to ramp up international nurse recruitment will only help to narrow the gap from around 40,000 currently to 38,800 by 2024, according to leaked NHS papers.
“It is inappropriate for us to rely on a steady stream of overseas nurses”
Health commentators warned that the NHS was having to “run to stand still” in terms of its nursing workforce as it struggled to keep up with the pace of soaring demand.
The Times has seen a draft copy of the long-awaited NHS Workforce Implementation Plan, the publication of which was originally due at the end of April but was delayed.
The document, which aims to support the NHS Long Term Plan released in January, is said to have set out plans to recruit 5,000 overseas nurses every year until 2024 to address gap in the short-term.
It also commits to educating more domestic nurses and includes new measures to stop those currently in practice from leaving.
While the plan reportedly admits that these proposals will only marginally reduce the vacancies from their current levels over the next five years, it stresses that without these actions they will rise to 68,500.
A spokesman for NHS Improvement, which is leading the development of the workforce implementation plan, told Nursing Times the information reported in The Times was correct.
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, which has been involved in writing the plan, said it was “inappropriate” to rely on overseas nurses to plug gaps.
“The time nurses have with patients is shortened because of the amount they have to do”
“There must be serious investment so that NHS and care services are able to deliver the treatment the nation requires,” she said.
“It can only be done by increasing the number of student nurses here in the UK and supporting the nurses we already have,” she said. “It is inappropriate for us to rely on a steady stream of overseas nurses.”
Dame Donna added it was “right” that the workforce plan acknowledged the difficulties and focussed on finding solutions.
Ben Gershlick, senior economics analyst at the Health Foundation think tank, said the NHS had to “run to stand still” on nursing numbers.
“We do think it’s having a direct impact on patient care,” he told The Times. “The time nurses have with patients is shortened because of the amount they have to do and that has a knock-on effect on patients.”
It comes after a recent investigation by Health Foundation revealed that the rise in the nurse workforce was lagging way behind increases in demand.
The think tank found that between 2010/11 and 2016/17, the amount of care being delivered in England jumped by 23%, compared with a 1% increase in nurses.
“The NHS must do more to support the frontline as it faces record patient demand”
Sara Gorton, head of health at the union Unison, said the government was ”missing a trick” by not concentrating on expanding nurse apprenticeships.
“The NHS is now so desperate for staff that it is planning a major increase in the number of workers it poaches from around the world,” she said.
“By failing to invest in large-scale apprenticeship programmes, the government is missing a trick,” added Ms Gorton. ”It could easily train up existing NHS staff who can’t afford hefty study fees. People who know the NHS already make great nurses and are more likely to stick around.”
Nursing Times understands the release date for the workforce document – also dubbed the people plan – has now provisionally been rescheduled for the end of this week.
NHS Improvement chair Baroness Dido Harding, who is overseeing the development of the plan, said: “The interim plan is still being written and will be published shortly.
“Staff are the NHS’s biggest asset and to deliver on the promises of the long-term plan, the whole NHS must do more to support the frontline as it faces record patient demand,” she said.
“Focusing on our people, their working environment, career development and ways of working isn’t a nice to have, it’s critical to the success of the NHS,” said Baroness Harding.