The NHS, already struggling to meet rising demand with a chronic lack of staff, has 70,000 fewer personnelworking for it than ministers have previously believed, new official figures show.
Its own data collection experts have found that the official head count of the number of people staffing frontline services, which was only produced in December, inflated its workforce.
At the time, a total of 1,083,545 health professionals were said to be working in the 228 NHS trusts and 209 GP-led local clinical commissioning groups across England. But the NHS’s Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) now says that the true number was 1,014,218.
That means the NHS had 69,317 fewer staff last September than the 1.1 million that ministers identified in December, including just over 15,000 fewer nurses, midwives and health visitors and 3,000 fewer doctors.
“These figures reveal that the staffing crisis in the NHS is actually far worse than we had feared,” said Heidi Alexander, Labour’s shadow health secretary. “Patients will rightly be concerned that there are 18,000 fewer doctors and nurses working in the NHS than ministers had thought only four months ago.”
The smaller workforce was worrying because “hospital wards are already dangerously understaffed and morale in the NHS is at rock bottom”, she added. “This is impacting on patient care and leaving some staff so overstretched they are unable to complete basic tasks, such as changing dressings or checking patients have finished their meals.”
Staff shortages are affecting at least some departments of almost every hospital and many GP surgeries. They have sent the NHS’s bill for agency and other temporary doctors and nurses soaring to £4bn a year, the main reason NHS trusts are set to overspend by £2.8bn in 2015-16.
The reduction is the result of the HSCIC changing how it collects data on full-time equivalent NHS staff and counts those working in hospital and community health services. For example, 17,854 have transferred to the independent sector, while another 26,798 have been redefined as working for NHS support organisations and central bodies.
“It is sobering to see that the number of nurses working in the NHS is even lower than previously thought,” said Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing. “This is happening against a backdrop of increasing patient demand and services under growing pressure, and these figures underline the need for a significant increase in the number of vital nursing staff. Without an increase in nursing staff, the strain on services will continue.”
The Department of Health declined to comment directly on the lower headcount, while highlighting the rise in NHS staff numbers soon after the 2010 general election.
“Staffing is a priority. That’s why we have invested in the frontline and there are already more than 22,000 extra clinical staff, including 7,400 additional doctors and 10,600 additional nurses on our wards since September 2010,” said a spokeswoman.
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