The government must make decisions about NHS service provision based on available numbers of nursing staff and what they can safely maintain.

The government must be honest about widespread nursing vacancies and what steps need to be taken to keep patients and staff safe despite a depleted workforce, says the RCN.

This week NHS services in England moved to their highest level of emergency preparedness as the number of people seriously ill with COVID-19 being treated in hospital rose to more than 11,000 from 2,000 at the end of September.

The RCN has grave concerns about how services will be safely staffed as we move into winter as it’s too late to find the nurses to meet the likely demands.

Even though there are more nurses registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) now than last year, there are still around 40,000 registered nurse vacancies in the NHS in England alone.

This is sorely felt across all areas of nursing, from specialist areas such as critical care and cancer services, to the vital community services providing at-home care. When COVID-19 sickness absence is also considered, these gaps in the workforce put enormous responsibility on the nursing staff left working and an intolerable pressure on senior nursing leaders.

The RCN is deeply concerned these few staff could “burn out” this winter unless local staffing plans proposed by NHS England prioritise the safest, highest quality care.

We believe nursing staff at all levels should be supported to raise concerns about staffing levels and patient safety, and for those concerns to be acted upon properly.

The RCN says the government must pledge that decisions and planning about what the NHS can provide this winter are based on how many nursing staff are actually available and what those nursing staff can safely maintain.

RCN England Director Mike Adams said: “We already know that frontline nurses, in hospitals, communities and care homes, are under huge strain, and anecdotally we’re hearing that in some hospitals they are becoming increasingly thinly spread, as staff become unwell or have to isolate at the same time as demand on services continues to increase.

“The government says nurses have been given extra training to provide more critical care staff to treat COVID-19 patients, but there simply aren’t enough to go around. It is essential that learning is applied to planning for this winter, including what service can be delivered safely with the workforce available.”

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