NHS staffing crisis: Wigan's hospitals buck the trend as number of doctors, nurses and midwives rises

Wigan’s hospitals are bucking the trend when it comes to the numbers of doctors, nurses and midwives caring for patients.
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Nationwide, staffing numbers in the NHS are a real problem as hospitals, GP practices and other healthcare organisations emerge from the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

A report from a cross-party group of MPs, led by former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, said the Government must tackle "the greatest workforce crisis in history in the NHS".

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The study by the Health and Social Care Committee criticised the absence of a long-term plan to address stalling recruitment and persistent short-staffing, adding the NHS is in need of tens of thousands of workers.

But figures for Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (WWL) show staffing numbers at the borough’s hospitals have actually risen.

The latest data from NHS Digital shows there were the equivalent of 537 full-time (FTE) doctors at WWL in April.

This was up from 534 last year and 449 in April 2016 – when comparable figures for all professions began – equating to a rise of 20 per cent over the last six years.

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Nationally, there were 128,000 FTE doctors in NHS trusts in April, up from 124,000 the year before and 104,000 in 2016.

But the workforce figures do not account for the number of health care workers who joined and left the NHS in between counts, nor do they indicate how staffing levels compare to demand for services.

The report said the NHS must still recruit 12,000 hospital doctors to address a current national shortfall.

The British Medical Association called on the Government to publish workforce projections, reduce medicine's gender pay gap and increase the supply of affordable childcare.

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Emma Runswick, the BMA deputy chairman of council, said: "If the Government continues to ignore this – or continued warnings from reports like this – the impact on health professionals, patients and the very health of our society does not bear thinking about."

There are fewer midwives across the country than last year – there were the equivalent of 21,741 working full-time hours in April, down from 22,374 last year.

It comes as the MPs’ report says 2,000 more midwives are urgently needed to address staffing shortages.

At WWL there were 118 midwives in April – up from 114 last year.

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The Royal College of Midwives said people are leaving the industry because "morale is shattered".

Suzanne Tyler, executive director at the RCM, said: "Employers and the Government must step up, put in the resources, and show they really value their staff."

The figures also show there were 1,527 nurses and health visitors at WWL, up from 1,481 last year and 1,059 at the start of the pandemic.

But the committee said there is a vast shortage of nurses nationally, with the NHS needing to urgently recruit more than 50,000 nurses and midwives.

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In England, there were 319,000 FTE nurses and health visitors in April – up from 310,000 the year before and 285,000 in 2016.

The Royal College of Nursing said persistent understaffing "poses a serious risk to staff and patient safety" and urged the Government to take immediate action.

Patricia Marquis, director of the RCN, said the report, which highlighted unacceptable pay for some NHS nurses who are struggling to feed their families and pay their rent, "should make the Government rethink the latest pay deal that follows a decade of real terms pay cuts".

Different NHS Digital figures show trusts are still grappling with staff sickness, as the absence rate across all roles nationally rose to six per cent in March – the fourth highest month since the pandemic began and well above pre-pandemic levels of 4.1 per cent in March 2019.

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At WWL, 7.1 per cent of full-time staff days were lost due to sickness absence in March. In March 2019, the rate stood at 4.3 per cent.

The RCN said the high absence figures were "yet more evidence of the need for drastic action and investment in the nursing workforce".

NHS vacancies have also increased more in the year to March than any 12-month period since records began in 2018.

Separate data reveals the NHS had 106,000 FTE vacancies at the end of March, up from 76,000 the year prior.

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These include almost 39,000 nursing vacancies, over 4,000 more than 12 months ago.

In the North West, there were 12,822 total vacancies on March 31 – up from 9,701 a year earlier – including 4,543 for nurses.

Alison Balson, WWL’s chief people officer, said: “Our staff are very important to us at WWL and we continue to recruit members to our team, both internationally and locally, via engagement with local stakeholders, and career opportunities through education and apprentice routes. WWL also continues to increase and enhance our well-being and inclusivity routes to support retention, however the Covid-19 pandemic continues to have an effect on the trust.

“Our staffing number has increased due to WWL filling some vacancies, but this is also due to us increasing staffing levels to meet service need and alleviating pressures by investing and developing services.

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“Our sickness levels have increased and are currently at 6.7 per cent. While this is mainly due to Covid-19-related absences, mental health absences also factor. However, we hope to lower these numbers following investment in well-being initiatives to support the physical and psychological health of our staff. Some of these measures include our new well-being lounge, bespoke mindfulness sessions, personal resilience workshops and psychological first aid.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: "We are growing the health and social care workforce, with over 4,000 more doctors, and 9,600 more nurses compared to last year, and over 1,400 more doctors in general practice compared to March 2019.

"As we continue to deliver on our commitment to recruit 50,000 more nurses by 2024, we are also running a £95m recruitment drive for maternity services."