Find New Nurses? We Can't Evenhold on to the Ones We've Got; YOUR NURSES MORE * * WHY FOUR HOSPITALS OUT OF FIVE DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH STAFF TO GIVE PATIENTS PROPER CARE

Article excerpt

Byline: SEAN POULTER;JENNY HOPE

FOUR out of five hospitals are having severe problems in finding and keeping qualified nursing staff.

An analysis of the figures demonstrates the stark reality of a growing chasm between the number of nurses available and the number needed to maintain decent standards of care.

Fewer nurses than ever before are entering the profession, and many are leaving for more lucrative occupations or because in the modern NHS they cannot combine nursing with raising a family.

The NHS is also dealing with a legacy of failing to attract talented young people to revitalise the service and guarantee its future. Poor pay and working conditions are named by nursing unions as key factors for driving young people out of the NHS.

Even the managers accept that nurses believe there is a brighter future outside the service.

Latest figures from the UK Central Council for Nursing Midwifery and Health Visiting show the number of home-grown newly-qualified nurses fell to an all-time low of 12,082 last year.

That compares with official estimates that we need more than 20,000 new nurses each year to keep pace with demand. Even recruiting from abroad is bringing in only 4,000 a year.

The biggest headache for managers is the growing shortage of D and E grades - qualified nurses who are the engine-room of the NHS. These staff, who can earn as little as [pounds sterling]12,800, are the public face of the hospitals, working long hours on understaffed wards in highly responsible jobs.

Even more crucial is the shortage of specialist nurses, working in paediatrics, psychiatry, operating theatres and intensive care units. The number of practising midwives is at the lowest level for ten years - 32,803.

Almost half now work part-time, which is putting an additional strain on the service.

The Royal College of Midwives estimates that 5,000 more are needed to enable every mother to receive personal and proper care at a time of great stress.

Problems are particularly acute in the capital, where a London weighting payment for nurses and other health workers goes nowhere near to reflecting the higher cost of living.

The Government has mounted a PR offensive, promising 15,000 new nurses and top pay for a new grade of super-nurses, who could earn [pounds sterling]26,000.

But many in the profession are concerned that this is window-dressing which will not head off the crisis. The shortage of staff has many frustrating and even dangerous consequences for patients. It raises serious questions about the quality of care they receive.

Staff on duty find themselves working long hours under enormous pressure, which itself threatens the safety of patients. Hospitals have attempted to fill the gap by hiring armies of agency nurses and running overseas recruitment drives, plundering Scandinavia, the Philippines and Commonwealth countries.

The Nightingales Nursing Bureau, an agency which employs 1,500 nurses hired out to hospitals in London, said the position is desperate. General manager Jan Baum said: 'We used to be the 999 emergency service offering nurses as cover, but now our nurses are a pillar of the NHS. It has reached crisis point. We warned the last government about an impending shortage of nurses; sadly neither it nor the new Labour government have heeded the warnings. We get calls from hospitals desperate for nurses, but we have to turn them away.' Mrs Baum said agencies such as Nightingales also struggle to find staff, but the company had one important edge over the NHS. 'People who are on our books can pick and choose when they want to work. If they don't want to work for a few days, they don't have to. It means that unlike an NHS nurse, she is not tied into a system where she feels under pressure to work long hours or that she is personally responsible for a particular ward.' Bill McClimont, of the British Nursing Association, the biggest healthcare agency in the country, says it contributes 5million working hours to the NHS each year. …