Date Published: 24 October 2008

Economic crisis leaves NHS facing staff shortage timebomb

According to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the current economic conditions are leading to risk of the NHS facing a staff shortage 'timebomb'.

In a recent statement the nurses' organization stated that health workers across the NHS are facing severe hardship due to the current economic crisis and the effect of a below inflation pay deal. With inflation running at a 16-year high, NHS unions have joined forces to press the Government to reopen pay talks for next year. The unions argue that the three-year pay deal agreed earlier this year is now leaving hundreds of thousands of NHS workers struggling to make ends meet.

In their evidence to the independent NHS Pay Review Body (NHSPRB), the unions argue that another cycle of boom and bust in the health labour market is just around the corner. A combination of students having to leave their courses because of financial pressures and an ageing workforce facing imminent retirement will leave the NHS with severe staff shortages and an inevitable impact on patient care.

In their bid to reopen pay talks for 2009, the unions point to evidence gathered from their members that highlights the mounting pressures on NHS workers. In nursing, more than 25% of students are dropping out of their courses, record numbers of nurses are accessing help on managing debt and house repossessions and an increasing number of workers across the sector have been forced to take second jobs due to the rising costs of fuel, food and childcare.

Karen Jennings, staff side Chair, said:

Hardworking staff across the NHS accepted a three-year pay deal six months ago believing Government and economic predictions that inflation had peaked and would start to fall. This clearly hasn’t happened, no one then could have predicted the world-wide credit crunch or that inflation would hit a 16 year high.

NHS workers, particularly the low paid, are finding it extremely tough to make ends meet. We know significant numbers are taking second jobs just to put food on the table and pay their bills. Keeping down pay now will have serious consequences for the future of the health service. The NHS needs to be an attractive career option and that means paying workers decently. The re-opener clause was intended to be a safety net for NHS staff, they need that safety net now.”

Dr Peter Carter, Chief Executive & General Secretary of the RCN, said:

The current economic crisis is compounded by the fact that we have an ageing NHS workforce and increasing numbers of students dropping out of their courses. All this points to a recruitment and retention crisis right around the corner.

Hardworking NHS staff put their faith in the Government when they accepted their pay deal - now it’s time for the Government to honour the day-in day-out commitment of NHS staff by agreeing to reopen talks to secure a fairer pay deal across the health service.”

Evidence submitted to the NHSPRB from the unions indicates that:

  • Staff are experiencing severe hardship as a result of rising inflation. One union found that three-quarters of members needed to work overtime to meet living expenses and a fifth could not afford to heat and maintain their homes.
  • Nearly three-quarters of members surveyed by one union said they were worse off than the previous year in terms of their pay and the same number had considered leaving the NHS.
  • More than 200,000 nurses are aged over 50 and due to retire within the next decade. At the same time, fewer students are embarking on graduate courses and more than one in four do not complete their courses.
  • Recruitment continues to be low in the NHS and for the first time in two years, there has been an increased reliance on bank and agency workers. For example, over a third of Heads of Midwifery report that recruitment and retention remains a significant problem.

As part of their submission, the staff side unions are also submitting a report commissioned from independent pay experts Income Data Services (IDS) which provides further evidence of the disparity between the current economic climate and the situation when the pay deal was agreed.

Source: Royal College of Nursing (RCN), UK.
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