DHSC rejects plea to overhaul NHS workforce planning despite ‘crisis’ warning

Health and Social Care Committee chair Jeremy Hunt says government has missed opportunity to tackle staff burnout crisis
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government had missed the opportunity to properly address workforce burnout

By Tevye Markson

16 Feb 2022

The government has once again refused to commit to introducing long-term, independent projections of the number of NHS and social care staff needed to tackle workforce shortages.

The Department of Health and Social Care said it would instead publish a report every five years setting out how workforce planning is organised in England.

Jeremy Hunt, chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, said the government has missed an opportunity to address the “cycle of crises”. 

He said: “It is disappointing the government has again rejected our call for transparent and independent projections of the number of doctors and nurses we need to meet future demand.

“Unless we have future-proof workforce planning, it will not be possible to address the NHS backlog and the cycle of crises putting dangerous pressure on staff will continue.

“We hope the government will be persuaded by the case for independent workforce planning as the health and care bill progresses through parliament. Without it, we see little hope that the workforce crisis will be alleviated.”

Last week, NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson told Sky News he was “incredibly frustrated” that health secretary Sajid Javid had refused to support a long-term workforce plan for NHS staff, backing the committee’s plea and Hunt’s amendment to the bill which would require a recruitment plan by law.

DHSC published its response to the committee’s June 2021 Workforce burnout and resilience in the NHS and social care report yesterday.

The committee’s report warned that workforce burnout across the NHS and social care had reached emergency levels and “is an extraordinarily dangerous risk to the future functioning of both services”.

The report said the new health and care bill – which is currently at the report stage in the House of Lords – should require Health Education England to publish annual reports that not only spotlight current staffing problem areas but also project workforce requirements five, 10 and 20 years ahead.

MPs said the reports by HEE, an arm’s-length body that is part of the NHS, should also cover the social-care workforce.

Responding to the committee's recommendations, DHSC said it is introducing a requirement for the health and social care secretary to publish a report at least every five years which will set out how workforce planning and supply is organised in England, “in order to provide greater transparency and accountability”.

This new duty, which has been added to the health and care bill, “will complement the concerted non-legislative action and investment on workforce planning and supply already underway,” the department said.

DHSC said it has already expanded the number of places available for domestic medical students at schools in England by 25% and is on track to achieve its promise to recruit 50,000 more nurses.

The 50,000 figure was a pledge in the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto. However, a costing document published alongside the manifesto clarified that the figure would be accounted for through “nurse recruitment, training and retention”, and the prime ministers was later forced to admit around 19,000 of the promised 50,000 were existing nurses.

Javid has meanwhile admitted that plans to recruit 6,000 additional GPs by 2024 are “not on track”.

The department said it would also expand Framework 15, HEE’s strategic framework for the health workforce, to also include social care workers.

DHSC did agree, however, to "look carefully" at the committee's recommendations from eight months ago.

The committee also called for improvements to workplace culture, including reviewing the role of targets across the NHS. It called for the social care sector to adopt mechanisms already used in the NHS, including a People’s Plan workforce strategy and a formal structure to raise concerns through “freedom to speak up guardians” – staff who have been appointed in each NHS trust as an alternative to raising issues with line managers..

The department said it would consider implementing some of these recommendations.

But Hunt – who was health secretary from 2012 to 2018 and is the nation’s longest-serving holder of the post – said the government’s plan would fail to properly tackle workforce burnout.

“Whilst we are pleased that some of our recommendations to improve workplace culture were well received, this long-awaited response is a missed opportunity to properly address the single biggest driver of workforce burnout, staff shortages,” he said.

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