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Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock today told Nursing Times he was committed to filing nurse vacancies as a way of supporting the mental recovery of staff who had helped tackle Covid-19.
Questioned by Nursing Times editor Steve Ford during the daily coronavirus briefing at No 10 over what long-term help would be available for staff who had put their lives on the line to get the UK through the crisis, Mr Hancock said addressing workforce shortages was an “important part of the plan”.
Mr Ford highlighted a recent Nursing Times survey that showed almost all nursing staff were feeling more stressed and anxious than usual, with a third describing their mental health as bad during the pandemic, for reasons including the shortage of personal protective equipment.
The survey was carried out as part of our new campaign – Covid-19: Are You OK? – which aims to ensure that supporting nurse mental health is firmly on the radar of employers and the government.
“So, my question is, what are you going to do in the long term to protect the mental health of nurses and other staff, on top of the helplines that have been announced, as we already have a well-documented nurse shortage and I hope you’d agree that we can’t afford to lose any more in the coming months,” asked Mr Ford.
Mr Hancock indicated that there were no further plans in place for mental health support for nurses beyond what had already been announced, centered around a new helpline, but pointed to his party’s controversial pledge to deliver 50,000 more nurses for the NHS by the end of the current parliament.
“I think that certainly the measures that we have put in place to help people with stress and more serious mental ill health as a result of work are… important and I’m very glad that they are in place,” said Mr Hancock, who was joined on the panel by Professor Stephen Powis, medical director for England, and Professor John Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England.
“I have been trying to get them in place for some time and managed to put them in place very quickly as the crisis began.
“But the other thing that is undoubtably true is that when you talk to nurses on the frontline, that increasing the number of nurses so that there are more to do the work that is needed is a really important part of the plan.”
The government “remained committed” to its meeting its 50,000-nurse promise, said Mr Hancock, who also pointed to the positive response that had been received to the appeal for nurses who had left the profession to return during the crisis.
Mr Hancock pledged to “support and cherish every single nurse who works in the NHS” and gave his thanks for the work that they had done “during the difficulties of coronavirus”.
Meanwhile, Professor Powis said local NHS leaders were beginning to have conversations about what they could put in place locally for nurses and other staff who had been involved in the frontline response.
He recognised that the redeployment of staff that had taken place to meet the demands of Covid-19 patients was likely to have added additional “stresses” on top of what had already been a difficult period.
“I know talking to the chief execs and hospital executives that as we now begin to stand up some of the services that we have had to stand down to manage the surge of the coronavirus patients, those leaders locally are thinking very hard about how they support staff because they absolutely recognise that they have gone through a very challenging time, very stressful number of weeks and that support is required both in the short term and over a longer period of time to ensure that as we move back towards a normal…staff have the support they need,” Professor Powis added.
In light of emerging evidence suggesting people from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities are overrepresented in the mortality figures from Covid-19, Nursing Times editor Mr Ford asked the panel if they had a message for BME staff who may be feeling worried.
PHE is currently in the middle of a major review looking at the impact of the Covid-19 on BME communities. While stressing that the increased risk appeared to be “relatively small”, Professor Newton acknowledged that it was “cause for concern”.
Professor Newton said in-depth statistical work was going on to understand the reasons behind the higher mortality rates, adding: “I think sometimes it can be wrong to take these statistics at face value.”
For example, he noted how there could be connections between the locations of where the virus was widespread and the ethnic make-up of those communities. Underlying health conditions like diabetes was also more prevalent in some ethnic groups, said Professor Newton.
Meanwhile, Professor Powis stressed that there was no need to wait for the data from the review to act on these concerns.
He highlighted advise that was issued to employers by NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens this week to “risk-assess” BME staff before placing them in environments where Covid-19 was present.
“We made a specific point of ensuring that local healthcare leaders do pay particular attention to supporting and doing whatever they feel is necessary locally to support our BAME colleagues,” added Professor Powis.
“I know from even today talking to some of those local leaders that they are absolutely doing that and providing that support.”