Shorter medical degrees, apprenticeships, and £2.4bn in funding are among the radical plans being put forward to solve NHS England’s severe staffing crisis.
The long-awaited NHS workforce plan is due to be published in full on Friday, outlining how the service will address existing vacancies and meet the challenges of a growing and ageing population.
It has been hailed as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to put staffing in the service on a sustainable footing over the next 15 years.
Staffing vacancies currently stand at 112,000, with fears shortfalls could grow to 360,000 by 2037.
The additional funding will help train “record numbers of doctors, nurses, dentists, and other healthcare staff” in England, with plans to employ 300,000 extra staff in the coming years. The funding works out at approximately £21,000 per vacancy.
Other plans include consulting with the General Medical Council and medical schools on the introduction of a four-year medical degree – one year less than the five it currently takes to complete – which, alongside a medical internship, would mean students could start work six months earlier.
Student nurses will also be able to take up jobs as soon as they graduate in May, rather than waiting until September as they do at present.
With demand for healthcare staff rising around the world, the Long Term Workforce Plan will set out a path to double medical school training places to 15,000 by 2031, with more places in the areas of greatest need.
More places will also be offered through degree apprenticeships so staff can “earn while they learn”, gaining a full degree as they work towards a full qualification. One in six (16%) of all training for clinical staff will be done this way by 2028 – including more than 850 medical students.
Officials say the plans set out, along with new retention measures, could mean the health service has at least an extra 60,000 doctors, 170,000 more nurses, and 71,000 more allied health professionals in place by 2036/37.
Flexible working and pension reforms for staff
The NHS workforce plan comes at a time when large parts of the health service are striking over the staffing crisis, and levels of pay.
The NHS plan aims to reduce reliance on expensive agency spend, which would cut the bill for taxpayers by around £10bn between 2030 and 2037.
The plan will focus on the retention of staff, with better opportunities for career development, improved flexible working options, and government reforms to the pension scheme, which is hoped will keep 130,000 staff working in NHS settings longer.
Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive, said: “As we look to adapt to new and rising demand for health services globally, this long-term blueprint is the first step in a major and much-needed expansion of our workforce to ensure we have the staff we need to deliver for patients.
“We will take practical and sustained action to retain existing talent, we will recruit and train hundreds of thousands more people and continue to accelerate the adoption of the latest technology to give our amazing workforce the very best tools to provide high-quality care to millions of people across the country each day.”
The NHS will mark its 75th anniversary on 5 July. The prime minister argued the workforce plan was a significant moment in its history.
Rishi Sunak said: “On the 75th anniversary of our health service, this government is making the largest single expansion in NHS education and training in its history. This is a plan for investment and a plan for reform.”
The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, added: “Our plan will end the reliance on expensive agency staff, while cutting waiting lists in the coming years and building an NHS which can match up to the scale of tomorrow’s challenges.”
‘They should have done this a decade ago’
Wes Streeting MP, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, responded to the publication of the NHS workforce plan.
He said: “The Conservatives have finally admitted they have no ideas of their own, so are adopting Labour’s plan to train the doctors and nurses the NHS needs.
“They should have done this a decade ago – then the NHS would have enough staff today.”
Mr Streeting added: “Instead, the health service is short of 150,000 staff and this announcement will take years to have an impact.
“Patients are waiting longer than ever before for operations, in A&E, or for an ambulance.
“The Conservatives have no plan to keep the staff working in the NHS, no plan to end the crippling strikes, and no plans to reform the NHS.”