More than 5,000 new places on nursing training courses are to be created each year as part of government efforts to boost the NHS workforce in England.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said more current NHS staff would be able to retrain as nurses through a four-year apprenticeship at local hospitals.
Announcing what he said was a 25% total rise, he told the Tory conference “our NHS is nothing without its nurses”.
He also said all NHS staff would be offered flexible working arrangements.
The Royal College of Nursing says there are 40,000 vacant nursing positions in the health service while the Nursing and Midwifery Council warned this summer that the number of people leaving their register was outstripping those joining and the trend was accelerating.
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There are also concerns the UK’s withdrawal from the EU in 2019 could put further pressure on numbers.
Mr Hunt told the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that staff numbers were one of his “most important priorities” and the government was committed to supporting what he said would be the “biggest expansion” of nursing training in the history of the NHS.
As well as increasing the number of places on full-time university courses, he said he wanted to triple the number of nursing associates – existing health service workers training as nurses – able to work on NHS wards.
A number of institutions, including Derby, Wolverhampton and Coventry universities, had offered to run the four-year part-time courses which he said would operate to high standards demanded by the regulator.
“We need more nurses,” he said. “Today I can tell you we will increase the number of nurses we train by 25% – that’s a permanent increase of more than 5,000 training places every single year.”
“We need your skills and we need your compassion.”
Greater support would be given to existing nurses with family and caring responsibilities, Mr Hunt said, including the chance to work more flexible hours, work additional shifts at short notice, get paid more quickly and have more control over pension contributions.
Staff, he added, would also get first refusal on affordable housing schemes on NHS land sold for development, which could benefit up to 3,000 families.
Nursing bodies have threatened strike action if staff do not get an above-inflation pay increase this year, saying their real-terms pay has been steadily eroded over the past seven years.
Mr Hunt said pay and conditions mattered and reiterated that he would decide next year’s awards in light of the recommendations from independent pay review bodies.
For Labour Barbara Keeley, shadow minister for Mental Health and Social Care, said:
“In his speech Jeremy Hunt failed to address the crisis in social care which his Government has created. Tory cuts to local authority budgets have led to falling care quality, cuts to care services and people stuck in hospitals because there is no care available for them in their community.”