Pledge to boost services undermined by failure to retain thousands of key workers, minister admits
Thousands of nurses, therapists and psychiatrists are quitting NHS mental health services, raising serious doubts about ministerial pledges to dramatically expand the workforce.
Two thousand mental health staff a month are leaving their posts in the NHS in England, according to figures from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). The news comes as services are already seriously understaffed and struggling to cope with a surge in patients seeking help for anxiety, depression and other disorders.
A total of 23,686 mental health staff left the NHS between June 2017 and the end of May this year, health minister Jackie Doyle-Price told Labour MP Paula Sherriff last week. That is the equivalent of one in eight of the sector’s whole workforce. One in 10 mental health posts were unfilled at the end of June, Doyle-Price also told Sherriff, the shadow mental health minister. While 187,215 whole-time-equivalent staff work in the sector, the total should be 209,233.
In July last year, the then health secretary Jeremy Hunt promised to increasethe mental health workforce by 21,000 staff – 19,000 of them in the NHS – by 2021 as part of an ambitious plan to treat an extra million patients a year and provide 24/7 care. Ministers would overcome a “historic imbalance” in workforce capacity in mental health care, he said.
However, by March this year – eight months after Hunt’s pledge – the workforce had only increased by 915 extra people, or 0.5%, Doyle-Price said in another written answer.
“These shocking figures show the government is woefully failing to meet the prime minister’s promise to tackle the ‘burning injustice’ of inadequate treatment for mental illness”, said Sherriff. “Ministers promised to deliver the biggest mental health expansion in Europe and recruit 19,000 more NHS staff. But more than a year later the workforce has increased by fewer than 1,000. More than one in 10 mental health posts are vacant and nearly 25,000 staff – one in eight – have flooded out of the NHS in the space of just a year.”
Many mental health professionals say understaffing is a key reason why so many people face lengthy waits for treatment. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents trusts providing all types of NHS care, has warned that staff shortages mean mental health trusts cannot meet the rapidly rising demand for care. Fewer than a third of trust chairs and chief executives believe the government’s plans will deliver enough staff, especially psychiatrists and mental health nurses. The clampdown on NHS pay since 2010 has hit staffing levels and Brexit may make things worse, Hopson fears.
Understaffing across the NHS as a whole is the worst it has ever been, official figures showed last week. A record 107,743 vacancies includes a shortfall of 11,576 doctors and 41,722 nurses – the highest numbers ever, NHS Improvement said. The King’s Fund health thinktank said staff shortages across the NHS were becoming “a national emergency”.
The DHSC said: “We want to see parity between physical and mental health, which is why we’re transforming services supported by record amounts of funding, and ambitious plans to increase the workforce. In addition to expanding the mental health workforce, the government also recognises that retaining our skilled staff is crucial, which is why NHS Improvement and NHS England have been rolling out a special retention programme supporting those trusts with high levels of staff attrition.”