More than 100 new workers joined East Lancashire Hospitals Trust at coronavirus peak
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The Government has praised the contribution made by new and returning healthcare workers during the pandemic – but experts say action is needed to address recruitment concerns long term.
NHS workforce figures show there were 9,094 members of staff employed at the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust in April, 103 more than during March.
The biggest increase in workers was among those in clinical support roles, whose numbers swelled from 2,915 to 2,974.
This included 63 workers who were directly supporting doctors and nurses. The NHS says many new starters in this group will have been student doctors or nurses who were fast tracked into employment to help fight the virus.
Across England, the figures show there were 12,839 extra members of NHS staff in April, of whom 3,008 were professionally qualified clinical staff such as doctors and nurses.
That is compared to a rise of just 3,265 between March and April last year – although the increase then was entirely in non-clinical roles.
Among the recruits in April were 1,151 new Foundation Year 1 doctors, who are junior doctors just graduated from medical school. Many final-year medical students were approved for early graduation to boost doctor numbers at the start of the crisis.
There were also 8,687 new support workers assisting doctors and nurses. Almost 90% of the 4,878 fast-tracked student doctors and nurses captured in the employment figures were recorded in this group.
The Royal College of Nursing said student and recently returned nurses had "stepped up to make an invaluable contribution".
But despite the number of nurses and health visitors rising by 1,570 during April, the RCN said the NHS had entered the crisis with 40,000 nursing vacancies in England alone.
"This shows exactly why a long-term plan to ensure there’s enough nursing staff to meet our needs is so desperately needed," said Susan Masters, RCN director of nursing.
"Recently, almost a third of our members told us in a survey they were considering leaving nursing.
"If the Government values the efforts of those students and others who stepped up to tackle Covid-19, it must take steps to retain the nursing staff we have, as well as to increase entry into the profession including an early and meaningful pay rise and tuition fee support for nursing students."
Health think tank the Nuffield Trust said many of the additional staff recruited through the student route would have been expected to join the NHS in the autumn anyway.
The group has warned the NHS faces problems with retention, overseas recruitment, and sickness absences due to stress or burnout in the wake of the crisis.
Dr Billy Palmer, a senior fellow at the think tank, said: "What is crucial now is that we persuade these new staff to stay by giving them good prospects and a positive environment.
"We can't let a wave of people coming in turn into a wave of people leaving in a few years' time."
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said there were also 442 former healthcare professionals who "bravely volunteered to return to the frontline" captured in the statistics.
Not all returners will have been included in the figures as they may have been employed on temporary or honorary contracts, she added.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "This pandemic has shown how proud the entire country is of all our brave health and care workers, and what an essential role they play in society.
"We made the commitment of 50,000 more nurses by end of this Parliament, and I’m determined we will meet it."