Warning- 200,000 NHS nurses are about to walk out the door

The “Sixties Bulge”, as it is known in the NHS, refers not to obesity in those approaching old age but a looming workforce problem that has been visible from some considerable distance.

Mass recruitment schemes in the Sixties were a great success. Nursing numbers rose as social shifts allowed greater numbers of women to take up full-time careers, while doctors’ ranks swelled with immigrants from the Commonwealth.

This workforce bulge can, in part, be identified as a cause of recruitment ripples ever since. Sharp rises in the uptake of staff occurred as the NHS expanded to meet further demand but these have prompted a natural slowdown in recruitment. The key, which the labour Government has yet to grasp properly, is to soften the troughs as effectively as possible.

Take nursing, where the effect of demographics is felt most acutely. In the mid-Nineties health professionals raised concerns about future vacancies. Labour took action when it came to power and hired a total of 80,000 more nurses, many from the Philippines and India. Now the NHS has limits on international recruitment and fewer nursing places in tertiary education.

However, an estimated 200,000 nurses are expected to retire over the next decade, a disproportionate chunk of the workforce and the most valuable in terms of experience. Health professionals argue that governments rarely factor in vital long-term workforce planning because they focus on short-term parliamentary cycles.

For this latest ripple to occur at a time of severe economic stretch is even more concerning. Past worries about retaining sections of the doctors’ workforce have been solved with attractive pay packages.

The likelihood of enough money being found to replace the retiring nurses is slim and will perversely mean the NHS ends up paying more for the quick fix sticking plasters of agency workers who can earn ten times the hourly rate of a middle-ranking staff nurse. 

There will be tight restrictions to come on pay and pensions, encouraging the more experienced to look for work abroad or in the private sector.

Solving the ebb and flow of recruitment should be key to the labour Government’s attempts to improve care and to treat more people outside hospital. These policies need experienced doctors and nurses, and a farsighted approach to recruitment.

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