A claim by the Royal College of Nursing that a “reckless policy” of job cuts has left the NHS with thousands fewer senior nursing posts, has been denied by Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
In its Frontline First report, published this week, the RCN says that nursing workforce cuts nationally have caused a significant loss and devaluation of skills and experience in the NHS with 3,994 fewer full time equivalent nursing staff working in senior positions compared to in 2010.
But this has been countered by the foundation trust, which says more than £1.1 million has been invested in nurse recruitment in the last year with around 270 nursing and midwifery staff appointed.
The trust provides acute services at the Great Western Hospital, Swindon, and community health and maternity services across Wiltshire and in parts of Bath and North East Somerset.
Frontline First claims that the NHS has been treating staff with years of experience as ‘disposable’ and a quick way to save money, which means specialist clinical knowledge and leadership is being lost.
And some senior staff have been forced into lower pay grades by ‘downbanding’. This permanently devalues that role, sending a message that experience and leadership is not valued in the NHS and lowering morale among staff.
In the Mid Staffordshire Public Inquiry report, Robert Francis highlighted the importance of having ward managers who were able to properly manage their wards and other nursing staff, noting that their role was “universally recognised as absolutely critical.”
Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: “Nurses have been telling us for some time that workforce reorganisations are disproportionately targeted at more senior staff with key specialist or leadership roles.
"This is something which has a knock-on effect on all staff, and most importantly on patient care.
“As the Francis report rightly pointed out, patient care is affected when there are not enough senior nurses to effectively manage wards. When these positions are targeted for cuts, ward managers have less time to develop and support staff.
“What we have also seen too often in struggling hospitals is a lack of communication between management and clinical staff, meaning problems can go unreported and unresolved until it is too late.
"Senior nurses are ideally placed to act as a bridge between frontline staff and management, enabling resources to be used where they are most needed.
"In the community, senior and specialist nurses often work with a great deal of autonomy and are often solely responsible for patients. It is these patients who are affected when these posts are removed.
“Just as worryingly is the loss of specialist clinical skills and experience which is inevitable when so many band 7 and 8 nursing posts are cut or left vacant.
"As more patients require complex care from specialist nurses, letting so many years of skills and experience vanish from the NHS is an utterly reckless policy.
“We are facing a Europe-wide shortage of nursing staff and the last thing the NHS should be doing at this time is treating its highly experienced staff as disposable.
"We need to be doing everything we can to retain the skills we have in the NHS rather than using them as a quick and easy way to make savings.
"These cuts are a short-term attempt by trusts to find efficiency savings, yet they will lead to a very serious and very long-term crisis in our health service.”
In a statement the foundation trust, said: “In January 2013 we launched a new nursing strategy setting the direction of travel for our nursing workforce over the next few years, building on all that is good about nursing in our trust.
"As our largest staff group we recognise that our nurses are vital for providing the best patient care whether on a ward or in someone’s own home.
"Over the past year we have invested heavily in nursing, with over £1.1m invested in nurse recruitment across the trust.
"In the last year around 270 nursing and midwifery staff have joined the trust, which means there are now 96 more nursing and midwifery staff on wards and in the community than last year.
"There are already 2,611 nursing and midwifery staff caring for patients, but we are continuing our recruitment efforts to recruit around 50 more.
"We are committed to helping our nurses get the most out of their role, offering them support, guidance, training and opportunities to develop them at whatever stage they are in their career.
"Last year we also made a big investment in nursing and midwifery leadership across the trust and invested £250,000 in training and development.
"By supporting, improving and expanding our nursing workforce within the trust we can make a real positive impact on patient care.”