Staffing shortfall of almost 250,000 by 2030 is major risk to NHS long-term plan, experts warn

Critical and lasting shortages in the healthcare workforce mean that the forthcoming NHS long-term plan risks becoming an unachievable ‘wish list’ of initiatives to improve the health service.

If unaddressed, these shortages could lead to growing waiting lists, deteriorating care quality and the risk that some of the money for frontline services pledged at the Budget will go unspent, according to a new briefing published today by The King’s Fund, the Health Foundation and the Nuffield Trust.

The briefing, entitled The health care workforce in England: make or break? draws on a new forecast of the staffing gaps emerging in the 1.2 million-strong NHS workforce. It predicts an increase in NHS staff shortages from over 100,000 at present to almost 250,000 by 2030, warning that this could mean that over one in six health service posts are short of an appropriate staff member by the end of the next decade.

The briefing comes as NHS leaders are poised to publish their blueprint of how the health service can adapt to the next 10 years in response to the £20.5 billion funding boost confirmed by the Chancellor at the Budget last month. It warns that even before this funding increase was pledged, the NHS could not recruit the staff it needed because of an incoherent approach to workforce policy at a national level, poor workforce planning, restrictive immigration policies and inadequate funding for training places. Funding for education and training dropped from 5 per cent of health spending in 2006/7 to 3 per cent in 2018/19, the equivalent of a £2 billion drop.

Commenting on the briefing, Candace Imison, Director of Policy at the Nuffield Trust said: “The NHS has a woeful track record in ensuring that the health service has the right numbers of staff it needs in all the right places. This has now reached a critical juncture: unless the NHS Long Term Plan puts in place urgent and credible measures to shore up the workforce both in the short term and in the longer term, it risks being a major failure. Solving the acute and systemic problems affecting the healthcare workforce will not be easy, but we owe it to patients, staff and taxpayers to start now.”

Richard Murray, Director of Policy at The King’s Fund, said: “The NHS cannot meet increasing demand from patients without the workforce to staff services. Unless the NHS long-term plan is linked to a credible strategy for recruiting and retaining staff, there is a real risk that some of the extra funding pledged by the government will go unspent and waiting lists for treatment will continue to grow.”

Anita Charlesworth, Director of Economics at the Health Foundation said: “The NHS is overstretched and services are being compromised by serious staff shortages. As things stand, this problem will only get worse over the next decade, putting access and quality of care at risk.”

“Unless the government and system leaders take radical action and prioritise the NHS workforce, staffing shortages will more than double to almost a quarter of a million by 2030. The NHS can’t sustain current services, let alone improve, with such a large and growing gap between the staff it needs and the people available to provide care.”