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Tuesday, 19 February, 2002, 01:28 GMT
Nurse shortage 'threatens NHS'
Only one in eight nurses is under 30
A chronic shortage of nurses could undermine the government's attempts to modernise the NHS, the Royal College of Nursing has warned.

The warning comes on the day that Health Secretary Alan Milburn announces that nurses are to be given greater powers to prescribe drugs.

Those with special training will be allowed, for the first time, to prescribe antibiotics to patients.

Ministers believe that giving nurses greater responsibility is one way to attract more peope to the profession.

However, the RCN says the only way to tackle the problem of under-staffing is for Chancellor Gordon Brown to commit 3bn over the next five years to fund a complete revamp of NHS pay and career structures.

An independent study commissioned by the RCN has found that the problem of staff shortages is likely to worsen as the workforce ages.

Staffing shortages
170,000 registered nurses left the register between 1990 and 2000
There were nearly 9,200 whole time equivalent long-term vacancies at 31 March 2001
The research found 24% of registered nurses are set to retire in the next five years.

Only one in eight nurses is under 30, compared to one in four 10 years ago.

The problem is particularly acute in community nursing, where the average age is now 48.

Some 12% of district nurses are aged over 55 and eligible to retire at any time.

Looking overseas

The RCN said recruitment of overseas nurses had become a vital way to boost numbers. Last year 40% of new entrants were foreign recruits.

But it warned the UK cannot continue to rely on a ready supply of nurses from other countries as competition from other markets - including the US - intensifies.

RCN General Secretary Dr Beverly Malone said: "To attract nurses and especially to keep them for the long term, the government needs to invest seriously in the workforce through a modernised pay and careers structure.

"The chancellor's spending review is critical to delivering this investment over the next three years.

"Nurses want better career opportunities, the chance to take on new roles, support to develop their skills and a fairer pay system.

"We all know that nurse shortages impact on patient care. Without enough nurses, the government's plans to modernise the NHS would be at serious risk."

Government response

A Department of Health spokesman said the NHS Plan promised that by September 2004 there would be 20,000 more nurses, midwives and health visitors working in the NHS.

Our objective is to improve the working lives of nurses to make nursing an even more attractive career and to keep them working in the NHS

Department of Health
"That is exactly what has happened, well ahead of schedule.

"But there is no room for complacency. What we don't want to see now is these additional nurses coming into the NHS through the front door only to find more leaving through the back door.

"That is why we are now switching the emphasis from nurse recruitment to nurse retention.

"Our objective is to improve the working lives of nurses to make nursing an even more attractive career and to keep them working in the NHS."


Dr Liam Fox, shadow health secretary, said the Tories had repeatedly called on the government to take urgent steps to restore the attractiveness of nursing as a profession.

He said: "In particular, we have stressed the importance of retaining existing staff.

"It is all well and good for the government to trumpet increases in nurse recruitment.

"But until ministers change their ways - by creating an environment in which nurses can provide care in the way they were trained to do - many of the benefits, which this brings, will continue to be frittered away."

The RCN report - Behind the Headlines - was produced by the Faculty of Social Sciences and Health Care at Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh.

The BBC's Vicki Youngs
"Mr Millburn has asked for a sensible dialogue"
John Humphreys, Royal College of Nursing
"The UK has become very dependent on overseas nurses"
See also:

17 Dec 01 | Health
Pay hike for NHS workers
14 Nov 01 | Health
Nurses to run more hospitals
05 Feb 02 | Health
Nurse recruitment target met
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