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No such thing as a staff exodus in the NHS, argues health minister

Health minister Philip Dunne has hit back at claims that the NHS nursing workforce is suffering a mass exodus as a result of Brexit and the fading attractiveness of the profession.

Speaking during a Health Select Committee inquiry into the issue, the minister argued it is “not actually correct” to claim that there has been a “very significant exodus” of staff in the past year.

According to the latest figures that he had, at the end of June there were 21,664 nurses and health visitors – a combined group for statistical purposes – working in the NHS, which was down 162 (0.75%) over the previous 12 months and since the EU Referendum took place.

With regards to leavers and joiners, Dunne admitted that the sector has begun to see a “slight shift” in position and a potential start of a trend, but he argued the proportions “are not that different.”

“It is unclear the extent to which that has been the responsibility of the coincidence of the much more rigorous language test that was brought in July 2016,” he explained, adding that the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) also brought in some more changes to the tests in the beginning of the month.

“We have to see the impact that has. Initial indications are that it appears to be positive, but we can’t give any statistics to that yet,” the health minister continued. “So yes, it is clearly a more challenging situation than we had, but I’m not seeing the mass exodus that is being talked about as yet from the statistics that we have of those actually working.

“Numbers who are joining the register at the NMC are significantly down, but that’s not the same as the numbers who are actually working in the NHS.”

Dunne’s comments paint quite a different picture of the state of the nursing workforce than what other organisations have been depicting. Figures from the NMC from earlier this month showed a dramatic rise in the number of EU nurses and midwives leaving the NHS, as well as much less people joining the service.

The Royal College of Nursing has also warned that the number of experienced nurses leaving the profession has doubled in the last three years, and called for urgent legislation to tackle the staffing crisis as many nurses were said to be contemplating leaving the profession altogether.

Separately, the Health Foundation said that, despite a 2% increase in the overall workforce number, the amount of nurses in England has actually fallen over the year, a trend which could ultimately undermine the progress achieved since the Francis Report in 2013.

Beyond the nursing workforce, there have been repeated warnings about the dangerous impact Brexit could have on the GP workforce, with a fifth of EU doctors allegedly planning to leave the NHS.

During the inquiry, MPs in the committee clashed with Dunne with regards to his figures, which seemed to deviate from the statistics frequently being released by royal colleges and other national health bodies. The health minister promised to write to the committee to clarify why these differences exist and to elucidate how the government will be calculating staffing numbers in its upcoming workforce strategy.

On the issue of Brexit, Dunne reiterated Jeremy Hunt’s argument that the government will keep reassuring EU nurses “as much as we can” that they are welcome in the NHS, and that they will be kept up to date with negotiations that relate to their residency status as the UK moves to leave the European Union.

Other measures are also in place to attract skilled nurses from non-EU countries, such as India and the Philippines, which the health minister said would “make a significant contribution” towards replacing potential drops in EU staff joining the NHS.

Some short-term measures also include improving the health service’s ‘retire and return’ scheme, which seeks to encourage nurses who have retired from a full-time post for whatever reason – be that flexibility or for financial purposes – to return to the profession. “That’s an important part of the panoply of measures to keep the staffing numbers up,” said Dunne.

Top image: Matt Alexander, PA Images

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Glen Harper   29/11/2017 at 16:47

I work in a large Midlands trust employing about 5000 nurses. 500 of those were from the EU. Our chief executive says we have lost 300 of those, 6% of our workforce since the referendum. Please communicate this to the minister.

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