A government plan to train an extra 1,000 apprentice nurses a year does not go far enough to plug huge staffing gaps in the NHS, unions have warned.
On Monday, ministers unveiled a £172m package to fund training for 2,000 nursing degree apprentices each year for the next four years.
With around 1,000 nursing apprentices already trained annually, the government said it would allow employers to double the number of trainees they take on, with bosses given £8,300-a-year per apprentice.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said the UK must ensure that nursing “is truly diverse and open to all”.
Hancock said: “Nursing apprenticeships allow students to earn as they learn and this new funding will enable healthcare employers to hire thousands more, helping us to deliver 50,000 more nurses by the end of this parliament.”
The government’s pledge for 50,000 more nurses by 2024 has proved controversial, with the promise relying on the NHS retaining staff.
The Royal College of Nurses (RCN) welcomed the new funding – but said the new apprentices would not be enough to plug the NHS staffing gap.
Mike Adams, RCN’s director for England, said: “This increase in places is a welcome step and we hope it will make a career in nursing more accessible for those fortunate enough to secure a place.
“It does, however, fall short of the wider investment needed to educate enough registered nurses for the future, ensuring health and care services have the staff needed.”
It’s a warning that has been echoed by the King’s Fund think-tank.
Policy director Sally Warren said the funding for apprenticeships would not “solve chronic shortages in health and care services”.
“Even before the pandemic, the health and care workforce was in a state of crisis, with high levels of work-related stress, reports of overworked staff looking to leave their jobs, and a shortage of around 40,000 nurses,” she said.
During the 18 months since the NHS workforce strategy was promised, only “piecemeal” moves have been announced, Warren added.
“Delays to government spending decisions have left the health service without the long term investment and concrete commitments needed to recruit the doctors, nurses and other staff needed to address workforce shortages.”
Campaigners have also called on the government to reinstate the full bursary for nursing students at university in order to fill the thousands of vacant nursing jobs in the NHS.
In 2015, David Cameron’s cabinet announced highly controversial plans to scrap grants for student nurses – which were worth up to £16,454 – and replace them with loans, arguing it would allow the government to lift the cap on training places.
However, there was a steady drop in university applications in the years following from first-time nursing students, the Guardian reported.
In December, Hancock said that nursing students would once again be able to apply for grants of up to £8,000-year – but campaigners and unions have called for more.
Adams, from the RCN said: “It is the case that a full-time, three-year nursing degree remains the fastest way to deliver a registered nurse through education.
“The government must abolish self-funded tuition fees for all nursing students as well as introducing universal living maintenance grants that reflect actual student need if it is truly committed on delivering the 50,000 more nurses they promised.”
The announcement from the government about nursing bursaries comes just days after thousands of NHS staff took to the streets demanding a pay rise following the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.