The plan to shift the burden for training nurses from the health budget to trainees themselves will indebt staff, undermine care, and overall betrays the government’s cruel willingness to sacrifice the public good on the false altar of austerity.
Since 2010 the Conservative government has cut the supply of district nurses by 41% and mental health nurses by 11%.
The total number of nurses in the NHS has increased by 1.1%, despite demand on the system growing by 16% due to an ageing population – and now the prospects of Brexit threatening the jobs of NHS staff from overseas. The crisis is undermining patient care and has eroded the morale of nurses.
A report by the Institute for Employment Studies for the Migration Advisory Committee on Thursday said current government policy would extend the nursing shortage for years to come.
“Thanks to years of short-term thinking, the UK is completely unprepared to deal with the challenges posed by an ageing workforce, increasing demand and now the uncertainty caused by leaving the EU,” it concluded.
This short-term thinking in the name of austerity has failed on its own money-saving terms, proving a costly mistake. NHS managers have been forced to plug the recruitment gap with costly agency staff, while permanent staff are shifted from pillar to post, breaking up the stable teams that used to bind them together in the common endeavour of caring for the nation’s sick.
Now, in a stated effort to save our NHS from a problem of its own making, the Tory government is setting into motion reforms to trainee funding that will only exacerbate the crisis.
The plan to saddle trainee nurses with up to £59,000 in debt means nurses are effectively paying to learn and work through their traineeships. Replacing bursaries with loans constitutes a tax on learning and a tax on public sector work.
The government’s agenda is deeply regressive because poorer student nurses are more likely to take up the loans than students from more wealthy backgrounds.
The plan also moves the provision of clinical placements away from a planned system led by Health Education England towards an open market where universities decide what and how many courses they offer. In this open market, trainees may value some placements more than others – unpopular clinics could face even more shortages.
The spectre of more debt will also put off mature students from pursuing new careers in nursing. And it is these mature students with professional and academic backgrounds who are more likely to become successful researchers and managers. The Royal College of Nursing found that 92% of sampled nurses said the changes would reduce applications by mature students. The government is choking off talent to the proud profession.
At a time when the government is in effect laying siege to the NHS by capping staff and cutting off finance, it is important that we remind ourselves of some fundamental truths.
The NHS is not a liability for the government but a public asset owned by all.
If you want a functioning public health system, you have to pay for it.
Like the junior doctor contracts, the government is – with little consultation – imposing more unpopular policies on our health workers in the name of austerity policies which are choking economic growth and failing on their own terms.
I fully support the call to reverse this reckless decision to scrap bursaries. The secretary of state needs to acknowledge that nurses are in it for us. In doing so he might recognise that we should be in it for them.
Diane Abbott is Shadow Health Secretary