The NHS could make “significant dents” in plugging workforce shortages by working “smarter” and more efficiently, its chief strategy officer has said.
Chris Hopson said more staff were needed but the NHS could also work differently to deal with chronic staff shortages.
The long-term workforce plan for the health service is currently being reviewed by ministers and is understood to include figures for how many more staff will need to be trained.
Earlier this week The Guardian reported that the plan, which has been produced by NHS England, says the health service is already operating with 154,000 fewer full-time staff than it needs, and that number could grow to 571,000 staff by 2036 on current trends.
Asked about the workforce plan on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Hopson said: “We’ve written (it), we’ve done the work, we’ve basically now set out what numbers we need over the next 15 years to ensure that our currently very pressured front line staff have a sustainable workload.
“That is with Government, it is for Government to announce and it’s for Government, obviously, to fund that.”
Asked if half a million staff shortages was in the right ballpark, Mr Hopson did not deny the figure.
He said: “Well, if you look at this work that other people have done, the Health Foundation, we’re basically in broadly the same ballpark.
“What we would need to do is identify how by working more efficiently, by working smarter, we can make significant dents in that without necessarily having to invest in, you know, vast expansion.
“But we know we absolutely need to have more training places and that’s one of the things that we set out in the plan and that’s something that our chief executive has also set out clearly publicly.”
Last May the Health Foundation published a report saying its central projection is that around 314,000 more full-time equivalent NHS staff would be needed over and above existing vacancies in England in 2030/31 (relative to 2021/22), to deliver 2018/19 rates of care.
Mr Hopson also told Today that the NHS was under pressure and was still coping the effects of the Covid pandemic.
Asked about waiting lists, he pointed to the tens of thousands of appointments and operations which have been cancelled across the NHS as a result of industrial action by workers including nurses and junior doctors.
He said the NHS had “set out a really clear plan” for tackling waiting lists, adding: “We hit the first milestone last July and before we hit the latest round of industrial action, we were absolutely on target to hit the next target, which is to virtually eliminate people who’ve been waiting longer than 18 months.
“We were on target to hit that in April … we were absolutely on course but don’t forget we had to reschedule 175,000 appointments as a result of the latest junior doctor strike and we’re currently heading for a four-day strike in a fortnight’s time.”
Last week the Health Service Journal (HSJ) reported that the NHS was likely to miss its target for clearing the 18-month wait backlog by April.
They suggested that cancellations due to the three-day junior doctors’ strike last week have pushed up the number of potential outstanding cases from some 9,000 to around 11,000.
On access to GP appointments, Mr Hopson said next month NHS England would set out “how we are going to improve access to GP appointments and … there are some specific proposals to actually deal with the 8am rush.
“If you actually look at GP surgeries across the country, there are still far too many that are on analogue phone systems, which means you can’t queue, which means you can’t call back when you need to. So one of the things we will be setting out is how we address those kinds of issues.”