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The Conservative manifesto could have been a positive one for nursing if the party had been upfront from the start about its recruitment targets, nursing academics have said.
The Tories have continued to face a backlash over their general election pledge for “50,000 more nurses”, after it emerged that up to 18,500 of those would be retained nurses already in the workforce.
“Without an honest conversation about the issues that we have, we cannot hope to solve them”
Health secretary Matt Hancock has been in the spotlight leading the Conservative’s defence of the policy pledge and has stood by the statement in the face of grilling from national journalists.
This week, Mr Hancock was taken to task over the figures by renowned nursing workforce researcher Professor Alison Leary, who is also a member of the Nursing Times editorial advisory board.
Addressing Mr Hancock on Twitter, Professor Leary said she found his claim that the Tories would increase the workforce by 50,000 nurses “very confusing”.
She added: “Retention would mean they are not ‘new’. As no demand modelling has been done how do you know it’s enough? Also are they RNs or some other type of nursing worker?”
Responding directly to Professor Leary, Mr Hancock confirmed that the staff would be registered nurses and stated: “We didn’t say ‘new’ we said ‘more’ – an important distinction.”
He also said that the Conservatives had in fact completed workforce modelling to support its pledges.
Speaking to Nursing Times following the clash, Professor Leary said Mr Hancock’s response had not cleared things up for her and believed that the Tories were “stretching the definition of the word more”.
“I think there needs to be a lot more clarity around what it is they are actually intending to do,” she said.
In addition, Professor Leary said, based on current scenarios, it was “very likely” that the demand would outstrip the promised increase in nurses.
“So, it’s really just papering over the cracks,” she warned. “There needs to be some robust modelling on this.”
The controversy over the 50,000-figure meant the positive messages within the Conservative manifesto around nursing had been “completely lost”, said Professor Leary, professor of healthcare and workforce modelling at London South Bank University.
While acknowledging that it was not a return of a bursary, she said the party’s commitment to introduce annual maintenance grants of between £5,000 to £8,000 for student nurses was “very positive”.
“That’s a laudable goal but it’s not new nurses”
“Whether it increases recruitment, I don’t know, we will have to see, but it’s a step in the right direction,” she said.
“It acknowledges that [nursing] is a shortage occupation and that incentivisation is needed to address what is a workforce crisis in nursing.”
She also commended the party for actually considering retention within its plans and to committing to backing the good work already carried out by government arms’-length body NHS Improvement to keep nurses in the workforce.
However, Professor Leary said: “Without transparency, without an honest conversation about the issues that we have, we cannot hope to solve them.”
Meanwhile, fellow nursing workforce expert, Peter Griffiths, chair of health services research at the University of Southampton, also shot down the Conservatives’ “new nurses” claim.
“It is easy to promise 50,000 new nurses – the question is whether or not there is a realistic mechanism to achieve this,” he told Nursing Times.
“In the past, we’ve seen similar promises about the number of GPS, but without a realistic plan it just didn’t happen.
“Add to that that it appears that nearly 20,000 of the ‘new’ nurses are not new – rather they are the nurses that will be retained. That’s a laudable goal but it’s not new nurses.”
In reality, the Conservatives were aspiring for 30,000 additional nurses, which was less than the number of vacancies in England’s NHS alone at present, noted Professor Griffiths.
In the main Tory manifesto document, it simply promises to deliver “50,000 more nurses” over the course of the next parliament.
A spokesman for the Conservative Party provided Nursing Times with a breakdown of the 50,000-figure. By 2024-25, the Tories are pledging:
- 14,000 nursing undergraduates and postgraduates;
- 5,000 nurse apprentices through an “expanded” apprenticeship scheme;
- 12,500 internationally recruited nurses;
- 18,500 nurses either remaining in the profession or convinced to return to practice.
The spokesman said the maintenance grants would be available for students training through the university route with the higher grants reserved for “areas of high demand” such as mental health.
He confirmed that the nurse retention target included those already promised in the interim NHS People Plan released earlier this year, but the Conservatives had committed funding to deliver this.
The party was also looking to introduce new “returner friendly measures” to encourage nurses who had left the health service to come back or to not leave in the first place such as childcare support.
He said there was no target for how many of the 18,500 nurses the party were expected to be through retention rather than return to practice.
It comes after prime minister Boris Johnson was grilled by a group of nurses over his election pledges during a campaign visit to West Cornwall Hospital in Penzance this week.
A video clip of Mr Johnson being probed by the nurses over a cup of tea including one asking him if had a “nurses’ tree too, as well as a money tree”, has gone viral on social media.