Under pressure: 8 June election: NHS staffing a priority

Whichever party wins the 8 June election, ensuring the NHS is staffed properly must be a priority, argues Niall Dickson.

The nature of healthcare is changing and with it the expectations of every professional group. If our system is to meet the very different needs of a 21st century population, we will need professional staff who work in new ways, in new settings and often in new, more flexible roles.
This is the inevitable result of the demographic revolution that has seen an extraordinary rise in life expectancy with many more living into what used to be regarded as very old age. While many of these additional years are healthy, many, of course, are not. As a result, we have a system that is unsustainable and, in many respects, unsuited to the challenges it must now confront.
Though this is most apparent in the pressures on the acute sector, it is being felt no less in primary care, where an increasing workload on family doctors – and a recruitment crisis among GPs and community nurses – is driving new models of care that must rely more on other groups of clinicians.
We hear a lot about the funding pressures on the service, the parallel crisis is surely in the workforce. Throughout the NHS and across the UK, there are significant shortages among different specialities, in certain areas of the country and within professions – be they medicine, allied health professions or nursing. 
Without question, Brexit has added further uncertainty to an already uncertain picture. The Cavendish Coalition, which we, as NHS Employers, lead, comprises 34 organisations, drawn from across health and social care that are committed to maximise the opportunities and minimise the risks posed by the UK leaving the EU. 
With support from the CSP and other members, we have been highlighting the need for the government to grant indefinite leave to remain for the 160,000 health and care staff from the EU. We do not doubt the government’s goodwill on this matter, but with a reported cut-off date that might end the right to free movement to new EU nationals entering the UK, this is a serious challenge for health and social care.
Brexit though has also highlighted a long-standing flaw in our healthcare system. We do not train enough professionals ourselves, with the result that we have had to rely heavily on overseas-trained staff and, too often, the resulting shortages threaten the safe delivery of essential services.
We are urging the government to work with employers and professional bodies to ensure there is a well planned and secure lead-in time for any changes to the immigration system that will affect EU nationals yet to enter the UK. Hasty changes could undermine the delivery of essential services.
In some areas, there are welcome signs of progress – not least in the removal of the cap on physiotherapy training places. As a result, in theory at least, universities could offer places to all who apply and meet the criteria. The election campaign will certainly feature Brexit in a big way, but – whatever the result at the polls – we will need to be vigilant in making sure that the NHS can access the professionals it needs and that includes a good supply of physiotherapists.
  • Niall Dickson is chief executive, NHS Confederation 
Niall Dickson Chief Executive, NHS Confederation

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