Too late to find enough nurses for this winter, union warns

The union issued its dire patient safety warning as NHS England declared a national incident on Wednesday evening as England went back into a national lockdown to try and supress the spread of the virus again.

In a statement, the RCN said the government had to be honest about the widespread shortages of nursing staff and warned it had “grave concerns how services will be safely staffed”.

The RCN, which represents more than 450,000 registered nurses, said any plans to cope with the second wave of Covid-19 created by ministers and the NHS has to be based on reality and specifically the number of nurses “actually available”.

It added: “It’s too late to find the nurses to meet the likely demands of this winter. The college is worried that even though there are more nurses than last year registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), there are still around 40,000 registered nursing vacancies in the NHS in England alone.”

It warned the effect was being felt not just in hospitals but across specialist areas like cancer care and in community services looking after patients at home.

Last week The Independent revealed there are more than 27,000 nurses off sick due to Covid-19. In total the NHS has more than 70,000 staff off sick last Friday.

Earlier this week staffing shortages at Liverpool University Hospitals Trust led to a warning from the Care Quality Commission after finding vulnerable patients were not getting help to eat or drink and a ward of 36 patients had just two registered nurses on duty.

The trust said it had 800 staff off sick, including 400 nurses.

The RCN said a major concern was that those staff who remained at work could “burn out” this winter.

It said: “Nursing staff at all levels must be supported to raise concerns about staffing levels and patient safety, and for those concerns to be acted upon properly.

“The government says some nurses have been trained up to bolster critical care services to treat Covid-19 patients, but the RCN is very concerned that this may not be enough in itself to cope with a surge in demand, exacerbated by the second Covid-19 wave.”

It said decisions and planning regarding NHS services this winter must be based on what nurses were “actually available and what those nursing staff can safely maintain”.

Mike Adams, RCN director for England, said: “The NHS is now at its highest level of preparedness as it faces the prospect of an extremely challenging winter.

“We already know that frontline nurses, in hospitals, communities and care homes, are under huge strain, and anecdotally we’re hearing that in some hospitals they are becoming increasingly thinly spread on the ground, as staff become unwell or have to isolate at the same time as demand on services continues to increase.

“It is essential that learning is applied to planning for this winter, including what service can be delivered safely with the workforce available.”

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