Government told to ‘stop ignoring warning signs of exodus of NHS nursing staff’

Ella Pickover, PA Health Correspondent
·4-min read

Support for maternity staff throughout the pandemic is “barely scratching the surface”, leading midwives have warned.

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) said it was “easy to see why staff are questioning their future in the NHS” after it warned that thousands of midwives and midwifery support workers could leave the profession.

It follows a report by the IPPR think tank which claimed that almost one in four healthcare staff were “more likely” to leave the NHS after a year battling Covid-19.

When asked, ‘Compared to one year ago, are you more or less likely to: leave the healthcare sector?’, 24.2% of 1,000 British healthcare workers said they were more likely to leave.

The report stated that work-related stress levels in the NHS were “accelerating”.

The poll also found that two-thirds of staff said they were mentally exhausted at least once a week.

Just under half (49%) said they felt unable to provide the patient care they would have due to constraints beyond their controls.

And half said they had worked an understaffed shift once a week or more.

The report authors said there needed to be a “fit-for-purpose plan” to support staff who were struggling with fatigue, burnout and mental health problems, to retain those considering leaving and to attract new people to the sector.

When the findings were broken down by profession, 29% of nurses and midwives said they were more likely to leave the NHS service compared to a year ago, compared to 18% of doctors and dental staff.

Extrapolating the figures, the authors said this was equivalent to 330,000 NHS workers – including 100,000 nurses and health visitors and 8,000 midwives – saying they were more likely to leave their jobs after working through a year of the pandemic.

But the report added: “In reality, many of these workers will not leave. But a highly dissatisfied and demoralised workforce is very bad news for patients and productivity.

“Furthermore, even if only a fraction leave, it would significantly compound existing understaffing problems.”

Dr Parth Patel, IPPR research fellow, said: “The last 12 months have stretched an already very thin workforce to breaking point.

“Many are exhausted, frustrated and in need of better support.

“If the Government does not do right by them now, more may leave their jobs.”

Commenting on the report, Sean O’Sullivan, head of health and social policy for the RCM, said: “We are only just beginning to understand the impact this past year has had on the mental and physical health of NHS staff, including midwives and maternity support workers (MSWs).

“While we’ve been encouraged by some measures put in to support staff well-being through the pandemic, it’s clear from this report that it is barely scratching the surface.

“Add to this the Government’s derisory 1% pay offer and it’s easy to see why staff are questioning their future in the NHS.

“We are running the risk of seeing hundreds of thousands of these incredible professionals walking out of our NHS doors and not coming back.”

Professor Jacqueline Dunkley Bent, NHS England’s chief midwifery officer, said: “It is important to recognise the tireless hard work maternity staff have put in throughout the pandemic to safely deliver thousands of babies and offer the best possible support to families, even as the health service faced the greatest pressure in its history.

“We have made sure that staff have access to the right support throughout, including through mental health and well-being hubs, 24/7 text support and access to mental health services, backed by an additional £15 million of investment and would urge people to reach out for the support they need.”

Commenting on the report, Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “This report should act as a wake-up call to Government and force them to stop ignoring the warning signs of an exodus of nursing staff from the NHS.

“The reality of a failure to properly invest in the nursing workforce is clear. Not only on the ability to provide patient care but also on the welfare of those who have been pushed to the limit.

“Ministers must now rethink their pay offer and put in proper support services for those who given so much in the last year.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We recognise the pressure this pandemic has put on all health and social care staff and have put £15 million into dedicated staff mental health support and launched a 24/7 helpline.

“There are record numbers of doctors and nurses working in our NHS with nearly 10,900 more nurses and almost 6,600 more doctors than last year.

“We are committed to supporting every one by further boosting recruitment, investing in staff, and backing the NHS with an extra £29 billion in Covid funding over the next year.

“Over one million NHS staff continue to benefit from multi-year pay deals agreed with trade unions, which have delivered a pay rise of over 12% for newly qualified nurses and will increase junior doctors’ pay scales by 8.2%.”