Boris Johnson’s much-maligned election pledge to boost NHS nursing numbers by 50,000 has run into more difficulties, a leaked email suggests.
The promise of thousands more nurses was one of the Conservatives’ key manifesto pledges but came under fire after it emerged that 18,500 of the 50,000 would come by encouraging existing nurses to stay in the profession.
The pledge was branded “deceitful” by Labour and called a “mixed message” by the Royal College of Nursing when it was unveiled in November.
It now seems to have hit more bumps in the road after a leaked email from a senior official at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) about the ‘Nurse 50K’ target called on NHS England to develop a “more robust plan”.
The message, from DHSC workforce director Gavin Larner to Prerana Issar, chief people officer at NHS England, was obtained by the Health Service Journal (HSJ).
In it, Larner said ministers would expect a “clearer model of change in the delivery plan” on “culture” and “how you see the publication of a staff offer translating into national work that changes employer behaviour”.
He said the “cause and effect is largely implied and unclear at the moment and this needs to be much clearer” to “give confidence to ministers” that national action over the next three or four years will deliver improvements in culture and retention.
Larner also said in the email, sent last week, that proposals on how “related work” such as pay, pensions and leadership would improve retention were “weak”.
He added: “The team would be happy to meet with you urgently, or provide direct support, to help ensure that we have a more robust delivery plan this week.”
When controversy first arose surrounding the pledge of 50,000 nurses, then culture secretary Nicky Morgan was forced to defend the claim on Good Morning Britain.
Debating the suggestion that the nurses were ‘new’ with hosts Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, she said: “There will be, overall – and we are very, very clear on this – 50,000 more nurses if you look in 10 years’ time than there are today.”
Labour has remained critical of the promise, saying only 19,000 posts would be filled by brand-new nurse trainees, with 18,500 of the 50,000 coming by encouraging existing nurses to stay in the profession and others to return and 12,500 recruited from abroad.
Speaking following the latest controversy over the plan, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “There is utter confusion at the heart of Johnson’s pledge to recruit 50,000 more nurses.
“The plan had already unravelled when it became clear it included thousands of already existing nurses.
“It now turns out the government is planning to recruit the thousands from abroad just a day after it outlined restrictive immigration policies including a nurses’ tax for international nurses.
“It’s no good the Department of Health trying to shift the blame on to NHS England, there is a nursing crisis from a decade of Tory cuts, and Johnson must come forward immediately with a credible plan to recruit the nurses we need.”
The DHSC would not comment on the leak but a spokesman said: “We are working closely with the NHS to deliver on our commitment for 50,000 more nurses by 2025, including quality assuring plans.
“The upcoming NHS People Plan will set out further actions to boost recruitment and retention.”
Dame Donna Kinnair, RCN Chief Executive and General Secretary, said: “This very public and vote winning ambition must be met and the RCN will play a constructive part, working with government and the NHS on the role each plays.
“High quality and safe patient care demands an end to the current shortages. Attracting thousands more and keeping high-skilled staff in the NHS has never been more urgent.
“Tomorrow’s nurses need support with the real cost of their degrees - including tuition - and today’s dedicated professionals expect credible plans to support them in giving top quality care and value their vast experience with fair pay and respect.
“As part of our campaign, we will continue to campaign to secure legislation for England for accountability on workforce planning and safe staffing levels.”