Staff shortages are set to become a greater threat to the NHS than funding cuts, experts have warned.
The NHS faces a shortage of 350,000 staff by 2030 and three leading health sector think tanks are calling on the government and NHS England to take urgent action to tackle the growing workforce shortages.
The King’s Fund, Nuffield Trust and The Health Foundation warn that not addressing the staffing gap could lead to spiralling waiting times, declining care quality and new cash for the NHS not being spent.
Richard Murray, policy director at the King’s Fund, told the Press Association the NHS had less than a year to address the problem.
He said that unless action is taken within 12 months the crisis could create a downward spiral of staff leaving because of “unbearable” conditions, which will only get worse if the workforce shortage is not addressed quickly.
Murray added: “They have very little time to right the workforce.
“If you wait another 12 months the problem is just getting worse.”
The new report, published on Thursday, warns that workforce challenges are now a “greater threat to health services than the funding challenges”.
It estimates that if demand rises as predicted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and The Health Foundation, the NHS will need 250,000 additional staff by 2030 to provide the care.
But if the service continues to lose staff and cannot attract skilled workers from abroad the shortage could be as high as 350,000, more than a quarter of the current 1.2m workforce.
The estimate does not include staff working in primary care, such as GPs and practice nurses.
The report calls for the long-term plan being drawn up by NHS leaders to include a funded and “credible strategy” to address immediate staffing shortages and deliver a sustainable workforce over the next decade.
The plan is being produced by health leaders, including NHS England, to decide how the £20.5bn of new funding a year by 2023-24 promised in the Budget will be used to improve services.
Nuffield Trust policy director Candace Imison said: “This has now reached a critical juncture: unless the NHS Long Term Plan puts in place urgent and credible measures to shore up the workforce both in the short term and in the longer term, it risks being a major failure.”
The NHS faces significant workforce shortages already, with more than 100,000 vacancies reported across trusts this summer.
The think tanks said this was due to an “incoherent” national approach to workforce policy, poor planning, restrictive immigration policies and “inadequate” training funding.
They said the problem is exacerbated by “worryingly high numbers” of doctors and nurses leaving their jobs before retirement.
The report said funding for education and training dropped from five per cent of health spending in 2006-7 to three per cent in 2018-19, the equivalent of a £2bn drop.
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the warning should be a “wake up call” for ministers and called for the government to scrap potential cuts to the education and training budgets next year.
He added: “With more and more hospitals looking at restricting services, including closing A&E departments overnight and even shutting chemotherapy units, it’s obvious the NHS is in the midst of a staffing crisis.
“After years of government mismanagement, combined with the deepest financial squeeze in history, our NHS is now short of over 100,000 staff – including tens of thousands of doctors and nurses.
“The secretary of state will be judged on whether his NHS Plan implements a credible, resourced strategy to ensure our NHS has the staff it needs.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The NHS runs on the dedication of its workforce and ensuring we have the right staff in the right place is the only way we can guarantee the future of the health service.
“Workforce planning will be at the heart of the NHS long term plan, supporting our drive to expand the medical, nursing and midwifery workforces by 25% and ensuring our record numbers of staff get the support they need to deliver excellent, safe care for patients.”