‘Historic’ 15-year plan to boost NHS workforceon June 30, 2023 at 8:06 am

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There will be a big expansion in student places and apprenticeships – but critics say action is needed now.

NHS staff posters on a wallImage source, Getty Images

There will be a major expansion in training places for health staff in England, under a “historic” 15-year plan to fill NHS staffing shortages.

It includes more university places for medical and nursing students and a greater emphasis on apprenticeships with the first ever scheme for doctors.

A consultation on whether five-year medical degrees could be shortened by a year will also be launched.

The plan has taken more than a year longer to be published than expected.

During that time, the NHS has been beset by strikes – with the dispute with doctors still continuing.

Pay does not feature in the plan – instead, it focuses on how much training places need to increase.

Currently, half of new doctors and nurses have to be recruited from abroad as the UK supply route has struggled to keep up with demand.

One out of every 10 posts remains unfilled – more than 110,000 vacancies.

And without action, this could rise to 360,000 by 2037, modelling for the plan suggests.

Chart showing nurse and doctor numbers

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard will officially unveil the plan on Friday.

To help achieve the goals, the government has promised £2.4bn over the next five years.

Ms Pritchard called it a “historic” moment for the NHS.

“It gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put staffing on a sustainable footing for years to come,” she added.

Mr Sunak called it “one of the most significant commitments” he would make as prime minister.

The targets for 2031 include:

  • doubling medical school places for student doctors, to 15,000 a year
  • a 50% increase in GP trainee places for junior doctors
  • 24,000 more nurse and midwife student places a year – close to double the number now

In the next five years, the proportion of NHS staff, including physios, podiatrists and maternity staff, trained through apprenticeships – combining paid work with study and no tuition fees – will double, to one out of every six.

And next year, an apprenticeship for doctors will launch, with a few hundred places.

NHS England medical director Stephen Powis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that making the plan a reality is “doable”, but would be “challenging” for the entire health system.

Pressed on whether he had confidence it would be backed financially by the government, he said it contained a “clear ambition over 15 years, laying out exactly what the NHS will need” beyond the initial £2.4bn.

Gemma Petters

Gemma Petters is one of thousands of people to have already started a nursing apprenticeship – in 2016, aged 30, at Royal Derby Hospital.

“I left school not knowing what do do,” she says. “I had lots of different jobs.”

Ms Petters has now qualified as a nursing associate – a role that bridges the gap between healthcare assistant and nurse.

Her next step will be to start two years of training to become a nurse.

Learning on the job has been really beneficial, Ms Petters says.

“We are learning the ethos of the NHS and getting to know how our patients want to be looked after,” she says.

And earning while she learns is important too.

“I’ve got children and a house to run,” Ms Petters says. “The security is really important and has enabled me to pursue a career in the NHS.”

Being welcomed

There will also be a major drive on retention – including more flexible-working options and career development to provide clear routes to senior jobs. Last year, more than 40,000 nurses left the NHS.

The plan is being welcomed by many in the health service.

Matthew Taylor, of the NHS Confederation, which represents health trusts, called it “bold and ambitious”.

The same commitment was now needed for the social care workforce, he added.

Others have pointed out the drive to increase training places could be undermined by the lack of placements on the front line – half of a nurse student’s degree is spent working in the NHS.

It will also take years before this expansion starts to have an impact on current shortages – it takes five years to complete a medical degree and three a nurse degree.

‘Dismal reality’

Dr Billy Palmer, of the Nuffield Trust think tank, said while it was good to see the plan published, there had been “years of drift”.

And he warned the “dismal reality” of working in the NHS at the moment could undermine the push to tackle shortages in the long term.

“There is a risk that we will feed more and more people into training only to burn them out ever faster,” Dr Palmer said.

Speaking to the BBC, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said “congratulations to the government for listening to Labour”, claiming that ministers had “nicked” the opposition’s plan.

He continued: “There is a reason why the NHS is understaffed, and it’s the lack of a workforce plan for the last 13 years.”

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