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Plan now for NHS workforce

Thousands joined the "NHS in crisis: Fix it now" march in London on 3 February. Photo Andrew Wiard, www.andrew-wiard.com

For the first time in almost 25 years the health service in England has set about producing a Workforce Strategy. A consultation is under way and the final strategy will be published in July to coincide with the NHS’s 70th Anniversary.

Why has the nation’s biggest employer not had a strategy for a generation? You only need to look at how the previous two governments thinking to rely on EU recruitment cut nursing student numbers in Britain between 2009 and 2012.

The consultation document highlights the historical failings of NHS workforce planning: “Since the NHS began patients have been well served by staff from around the world. However, maximising the self-supply of our workforce is critical. It cannot be right for the NHS to draw staff from other countries in large numbers just because we have failed to plan and invest.” So, Brexit has done a marvellous thing: it has made the NHS think seriously about workforce planning for the first time in many years.

The consultation document is more wide ranging than many recent health department documents and starts with several principles – chief of which it calls “securing the supply of staff that we need to deliver high quality care”. This involves actions to boost recruitment to NHS training programmes but gives just as much weight to retaining existing staff: “England should not be relying on net inflows of healthcare professionals”.

An early target will be to attract at least 1,000 qualified nurses not currently working to return each year from 2018. This will be a real challenge as the two previous governments closed most of the “Return to Practice” courses.

In future, service, financial and workforce planning are to be intertwined. It is heartening that social care workforce requirements are included. A far-reaching technology review across England will look at how advances in genomics, pharmaceuticals, artificial intelligence and robotics will change the roles and functions of clinical staff over the next two decades, and what this will mean for future skills and training needs.

But thanks to devolution the resulting strategy for a decade will apply in England only. NHS workers across Britain need to argue for this most obvious intertwining.

The real experts on retention of staff are the current workforce, and all are invited to take part – including trade unions at all levels. They need to make sure their expertise is written into the strategy when it is finalised in July.