Over 60 NHS trusts have been requested to reduce their staff bills, after extra nurses have been recruited in the immediate aftermath of the Mid-Staffs scandal.
But patient groups have been strongly critical of the diktat, suggesting that it could impact negatively on patient safety.
The decision is perhaps particularly contentious, as the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had recently explicitly praised hospitals for recruiting thousands of nurses nationwide.
With the government now moving to effectively trim the number of nurses working in the NHS, this certainly seems to be a contradictory position.
£356 million of excess spending has been identified by the NHS Improvement regulator.
And the 63 trusts involved have been tasked with finding savings by the end of July.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, accused the government of effectively punishing NHS trusts for following its own advice in recruiting nurses.
“It is ludicrous to punish trusts for increasing their nursing workforce. Ensuring safe staffing levels saves lives, improves the patient experience, and increases efficiency. It was the correct response for Trusts to invest in their workforce post the Mid Staffs scandal – as that showed us how badly wrong it could go without enough staff.”
Janet Davies, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, was similarly damning of the initiative, asserting that it would compromise patient safety significantly.
“Trusts are doing everything they can to keep care safe and some are having to pay over the odds to do so. Penalising them without tackling the root cause of the issue send sends a very clear message that finance is more important than safety. Efforts to get finances under control should not include cuts to the workforce.”
But Jim Mackey, chief executive of NHS Improvement, defended the conduct of the regulator, and suggested that trusts would not exactly be forced to reduce nursing staff, explaining the process as he saw it.
“This exercise – which has been conducted in an open and transparent way – helps trust compare the amount they are spending on staff with other NHS providers in order to ensure any increases are properly planned and proportionate. We will work with providers and the Care Quality Commission to identify where savings can be made without compromising patient safety.”
This latest planner follows dire financial results for the NHS in the previous financial year, during which trusts accumulated a collective deficit in the region of £2.5 billion.
Trusts accused of spending too much on staff include University Hospitals of Leicester trust, Royal Devon and Exeter Foundation trust, Barts Health trust, Imperial College Healthcare trust and Tameside Hospital Foundation trust.