The figures, published in a report from NHS Improvement, revealed that there were 39,148 nursing vacancies in England in the third quarter of 2018-19 – a drop of 3,222 from 42,370 in the previous quarter.
“It’s very disappointing that there are over 3,000 more nursing vacancies in the NHS in England than this time last year”
Put another way, the nursing vacancy rate during October, November and December was 11%, compared to 12% in July, August and September.
According to the regulator’s report on the quarterly performance of the NHS provider sector, most of the vacancies were covered by bank staff and to a lesser extent agency nurses.
“Intelligence suggests approximately 80% are being filled by a combination of bank (64%) and agency staff (36%),” stated the report.
However, the vacancy numbers and rate in the third quarter of 2018-19 were slightly higher than at the same point at the same point during the previous financial year.
During the third quarter of 2017-18, the number of vacancies was 35,934 and the vacancy rate was 10.2%.
“These figures reflect the stark reality facing NHS trusts”
In contrast to the vacancies, the report also noted that health service trusts substantively employed over 316,000 WTE registered nurses during the third quarter of 2018-19.
Dame Donna Kinnair, the Royal College of Nursing’s acting chief executive, said: “It’s very disappointing that there are over 3,000 more nursing vacancies in the NHS in England than this time last year, despite repeated announcements by ministers and the bodies that run the NHS that the increasing workforce numbers is their top priority.
“What’s more, the overall nursing vacancy rate of 11% announced by NHS Improvement today disguises far bigger shortages in individual areas such as mental health and learning disabilities, which are harder to recruit to,” she said.
Dame Donna called for “credible” proposals to tackle the shortages to feature in the Workforce Implementation Programme, which is due later this year in the wake of the NHS Long Term Plan.
“The forthcoming Workforce Implementation Plan needs urgently to come up with a credible and costed proposal for increasing nurse numbers, and ministers need to commit the resources to deliver it,” she said.
“As a first move, we are calling on the government to invest at least £1bn a year into nurse higher education, in order to increase the size of the workforce of the future,” she said.
Nursing vacancies in England in the third quarter of 2018-19
She added: “The RCN is also calling for accountability for safe levels of nurse staffing to be enshrined in law.”
Overall, the report said that between October and December 2018, more patients were treated and discharged in emergency departments within four hours.
However, the focus on treating high numbers of patients across emergency departments was one of the key reasons the provider sector as a whole reported a year-to-date deficit of £1.2bn, it said.
The report highlighted that the NHS treated 5.4 million patients within four hours between October and December 2018 – more than the 5.3 million for the same quarter last year.
But it cautioned that the rise in patient demand meant the percentage of patients being treated within the four-hour target reduced slightly from 87.9% to 87.7%.
Overall, the number of staff vacancies has reduced by 5,000 compared to the previous quarter, and by 1,046 compared to October to December 2017. NHS trusts now have 100,500 vacancies.
Meanwhile, the number of patients spending more than 21 days in hospital was reduced by 1,950 over the quarter helping to free up beds for those patients that need them most.
The number of patients spending more than 21 days in hospital at the end of December was 18,112, compared to 18,866 at the same period last year.
Nick Ville, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said: “These figures reflect the stark reality facing NHS trusts.”
He said this was the result of a combination of “relentless increases in patient demand, 100,000 staff vacancies and the legacy of a decade of austerity”.
“NHS Improvement’s report shows that NHS staff are working harder than ever, with more patients being treated whilst delivering efficiency savings.
“Despite this, the NHS continues to be unable to meet its performance targets as the funding available has not kept pace with the demands on frontline services. This has led to the financial performance of NHS trusts being more than £250m behind what was planned.
“The good news is that the new Five Year funding settlement and the NHS Long Term Plan provides stability and a welcome vision for the future. But we should be under no illusions about the scale of the challenge facing the NHS to get back into the black, meet key waiting time targets and address the staff shortages holding the service back.”