It has been discovered that the NHS has 70,000 fewer staff than was previously believed by ministers.
Official figures compiled by data collection experts indicate that the headcount of the health service was significantly smaller than many people had believed to be the case.
At the time, a total of 1,083,545 health professionals were said to be working in the 228 NHS trusts and 209 GP-led local clinical commissioning groups across England.
But the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) states that the true number is in fact 1,014,218.
Heidi Alexander, Labour’s shadow health secretary, was bemused by the figures, and asserted that it could have a massive influence on the quality of service provided to patients.
“These figures reveal that the staffing crisis in the NHS is actually far worse than we had feared. Patients will rightly be concerned that there are 18,000 fewer doctors and nurses working in the NHS than ministers had thought only four months ago.”
Alexander also noted that “hospital wards are already dangerously understaffed and morale in the NHS is at rock bottom” and suggested that this could have a fundamental impact on the quality of the NHS.
“This is impacting on patient care and leaving some staff so overstretched they are unable to complete basic tasks, such as changing dressings or checking patients have finished their meals.”
It is believed by expert health sector analysts that staff shortages are affecting at least some departments at every single hospital and many GP surgeries across the National Health Service.
This is evidenced by the fact that the NHS has explicitly required vast numbers of agency staff in order to fill crucial posts.
As a result of this, the overall bill for agency and temporary doctors in the health service has increased exponentially.
In the previous fiscal year, this figure topped £4 billion, and this has already been cited as the primary reason why NHS trusts will overspend by £2.8 billion in the existing financial year.
The reduction is the result of the HSCIC changing how it collects data on full-time equivalent NHS staff and counts those working in hospital and community health services.
Around 45,000 in total have either transferred to the independent sector, or now work for NHS support organisations and central bodies.
Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, echoed the sentiments of Heidi Alexander, and contextualised the problems that organisations in the NHS increasingly face.
“It is sobering to see that the number of nurses working in the NHS is even lower than previously thought. This is happening against a backdrop of increasing patient demand and services under growing pressure, and these figures underline the need for a significant increase in the number of vital nursing staff. Without an increase in nursing staff, the strain on services will continue.”
Responding to this issue, a spokesperson for the Department of Health was reluctant to speak about the specific headcount issues, but did indicate that measures within the NHS were intended to address the problems.
“Staffing is a priority. That’s why we have invested in the frontline and there are already more than 22,000 extra clinical staff, including 7,400 additional doctors and 10,600 additional nurses on our wards since September 2010.”