Jeremy Hunt admits ‘share of responsibility’ as NHS faces ‘greatest workforce crisis in history’

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A new report from MPs criticises the Government’s approach to tackling staff shortages in the NHS (PA) (PA Wire)
A new report from MPs criticises the Government’s approach to tackling staff shortages in the NHS (PA) (PA Wire)

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Monday admitted he has to take a “share of responsibility” for the staffing crisis facing the NHS.

Mr Hunt said it is “too tempting for a Chancellor and a Health Secretary to cut back on doctor training” to make immediate savings because it takes a decade for the changes to have an impact on patient care.

It comes as a damning report on Monday revealed that persistent understaffing in the health service is creating a serious risk to patient safety.

The cross-party Health and Social Care Committee, chaired by Mr Hunt, found services in England face “the greatest workforce crisis in their history” and the Government has no credible strategy to improve the situation.

Mr Hunt, who was in charge of the NHS between 2012 to 2018, told LBC: “Absolutely, I have my share of responsibility [for that].

“I would say in my defence that I set up six new medical schools and increased the number of doctor, nurse, midwife training places by a quarter. As a result of those big changes we haven’t seen a single extra doctor yet. We won’t see them until 2024. That’s because of the time it takes [for doctors to train].”

In the report, research by the Nuffield Trust found the NHS in England is short of 12,000 hospital doctors and more than 50,000 nurses and midwives.

It said maternity services are “under unsustainable pressure”, while the number of full-time GPs also fell by more than 700 in the three years to March 2022.

Projections suggest an extra 475,000 jobs will be needed in health and an extra 490,000 jobs in social care by the early part of the next decade.

In 2015 the Government scrapped bursaries worth up to £20,000 for nurses and midwives and replaced by them with student loans.

Royal College of Nursing Director Patricia Marquis said there were “many reasons, to blame for the NHS facing staff shortages some of them going back to when Jeremy Hunt was health secretary.”

But she added that the “biggest issuing facing nursing at the moment is burnout stress, physical and mental exhaustion”.

“They removed the bursary and started charging people tuition fees to become a nurse,” she said. “All of these things added to the difficulties in recruiting. But what we have seen is more recently is people leaving. That is the biggest issue right now.”

The report said: “In the face of this, the Government has shown a marked reluctance to act decisively.

“The workforce plan promised in the spring has not yet been published and will be a ‘framework’ with no numbers, which we are told could potentially follow in yet another report later this year.”

MPs said that while some progress has been made towards a target of recruiting 50,000 nurses, the Government is set to miss its target to recruit 6,000 more GPs, as promised in the Conservative Party manifesto.

“The persistent understaffing of the NHS now poses a serious risk to staff and patient safety both for routine and emergency care,” they said.

“It also costs more as patients present later with more serious illness.

“But most depressing for many on the frontline is the absence of any credible strategy to address it.”

The report said staff are under pressure and the NHS loses millions of full-time equivalent days to staff sickness caused by anxiety, stress and depression.

“The result is that many in an exhausted workforce are considering leaving — and if they do pressure will increase still further on their colleagues,” the study said, adding that some simple things are not in place, such as access to hot food and drink on shifts and flexible working.

MPs said the Government’s “refusal” to make workforce planning data public “means that the basic question which every health and care worker is asking: are we training enough staff to meet patient need? will remain unanswered”.

The report also criticises NHS pension arrangements which are leading to senior doctors reducing their working hours owing to facing hefty tax bills.

More needs to be done on social care worker pay to stop people leaving, it added.

A separate report by the committee’s panel of independent experts rates the Government’s progress overall to meet key commitments it has made on workforce as “inadequate”.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting accused the Government of having “utterly failed” to address the crisis.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are growing the health and social care workforce, with over 4,000 more doctors, and 9,600 more nurses compared to last year, and over 1,400 more doctors in general practice compared to March 2019.

“As we continue to deliver on our commitment to recruit 50,000 more nurses by 2024, we are also running a £95 million recruitment drive for maternity services and providing £500 million to develop our valued social care workforce, including through training opportunities and new career pathways.

“We have commissioned NHS England to develop a long term workforce plan to recruit and support NHS staff while they deliver high quality, safe care to patients and help to bust the Covid backlogs.”

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