The first application figures are in following the Government's decision to scrap Bursaries for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals and they are as bad as just about everyone feared. Applications for nursing and midwifery courses at British universities have fallen by 23% and nobody outside the Conservative party will be in any way surprised.
I warned at the time that the policy was likely to have precisely this impact, after meeting with representatives from the profession and looking at the evidence. The Government on the other hand didn't even bother to formally consult with the Royal Colleges and other experts before announcing their plans to replace Bursaries with the prospect of a lifetime of debt.
If they had done, they would have heard that gambling with the future of the nursing profession for short-term savings will cost more in the long-term than it ever saves. Instead, in a contender for the most ludicrous political statement of the last decade, the then Health Minister described the proposal as, "potentially one of the most exciting things that we will do in the NHS in the next five years to increase opportunity and quality, and the presence of nursing staff on wards."
The nursing profession is straining at the seams, with the Royal College of Nursing recently reporting that there are 24,000 nursing vacancies in the UK. This not only leads to understaffed wards, pushing the remaining workforce to its limit and leaving patients potentially less safe. The failure to recruit and retain adequate numbers of nurses also led to soaring agency costs, which reached an eye-watering £3.3 billion in just one year under this Government.
Along with scrapping bursaries and the ludicrous decision by the Tories to cut the number of nurse training places by 3,000 after taking office which left the NHS with 8,000 fewer nurses; another key cause of the recruitment and retention crisis is the Government's ongoing policy of pay restraint. The Royal College of Nursing have stated that since 2011 there has been a real-terms drop in earnings of 14% for its members.
A wide range of experts from Simon Stevens to the Nuffield Trust have for years warned that pay restraint is not sustainable moving forward and I argued in Parliament this week that the Government needs urgently to change course if it is to avoid compounding this crisis.
As I said in the Parliamentary debate, I recently heard the staff who work in our NHS described as "shock absorbers." That seemed to be a pretty good description of how they are taking and absorbing the relentless pressure and stress of being on the frontline of an underfunded health service. The uncertainty created by Brexit means that the reliance in recent years on recruitment from the EU is no longer available to shore up the numbers. Our NHS staff cannot keep giving more at the same time that we are giving them less, the Government needs to reinstate bursaries and end pay restraint - we cannot afford not to.