Hospitals are being instructed to cut staffing levels significantly as the NHS grapples with a growing funding crisis.
The decision made by NHS regulators will leave critical healthcare professionals such as nurses and other frontline medical workers facing unemployment.
NHS regulators have taken the controversial decision despite intense concern among hospital bosses and health unions that reducing staff will hit quality of care, patient safety and staff morale, while increasing waiting times.
Yet Monitor and the NHS Trust Development Authority (TDA) have nonetheless issued the instruction to reduce staffing levels, despite ministers having previously ordered hospitals to do the opposite just three years ago.
Aside from the financial issues, many workers at the coalface in the NHS will wonder how such a policy can be carried out, while also delivering the seven-day culture of which David Cameron has spoken.
With some NHS trusts slipping well into deficit, the new policy rubber stamped by monitor could lead to massive redundancies.
For example, Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge has been losing £1.2m a week during 2015-16 and could end the year £60m in deficit.
To put this into perspective, axing 25 nurses would save around £1 million pounds annually.
But despite criticism, it is evident that the regulators have moved in order to address the spiralling deficits of the NHS, which are projected to be over £2 billion by the end of the fiscal year.
Some of the hospital trusts that are most in the red have been told to use “headcount reduction” to reduce their deficit for 2015-16.
This procedural demand is specifically stated in a letter submitted by Monitor and the TDA to each of the 241 NHS trusts that are supervised by the two regulators.
The letter in question informed trusts that they should be dramatically reducing their financial distress in order to receive money from a £1.8 billion bailout which will become available in April.
It is hoped that this diversion of funding will enable the NHS to stabilise its financial position, while efficiency savings kick in over the next 12 months.
The letter, signed by the TDA deputy chief executive, Bob Alexander, and his Monitor counterpart, Stephen Hay, comments that numerous actions are being considered by the NHS, including enforced redundancies.
“We will be meeting a number of challenged providers this month to agree a set of actions, including headcount reduction, additional to the current plan, with the clear intention of improving the financial position of those individual providers.”
Richard Murray, the King’s Fund’s director of policy, immediately indicated his belief that patients would fundamentally suffer from this decision.
“If trusts do begin to reduce headcount the impact on patients would be swift, through either rising waiting times or reduced quality of care or both. Three years on from Robert Francis’s report into Mid Staffs, which emphasises that safe staffing was the key to maintaining quality of care, the financial meltdown in the NHS now means that the policy is being abandoned for hospitals that have run out of money.”
While Labour’s Heidi Alexander, was equally critical. “At the last election, the Tories promised to ensure hospitals had enough staff to meet patient demand. However, less than a year later they’re asking hospitals to draw up plans to reduce staff numbers.”
A Department of Health spokesman defended the plans, and emphasised that the regulators would ensure that staffing levels remain sufficient to deliver outstanding care to patients.
“We expect all parts of the NHS to have safe staffing levels – making sure they have the right staff, in the right place, at the right time.”
The spokesman indicated that the NHS now employed 6,100 fewer managers and almost 30,000 more clinical staff than in 2010.