Government not being honest about NHS workforce crisis, says ex-Test and Trace chief

Ex-Test and Trace chief Baroness Harding has accused the Government of not being straight about the scale of the workforce crisis facing the NHS.

The Conservative peer (pictured), who stepped down as chair of NHS Improvement in October, revealed she had been previously gagged from publishing staffing forecasts.

Unless forced to do so, Government “will not be honest about the mismatch between supply and demand of healthcare workers”, she told Parliament.

Her comments came as a number of peers, including the former NHS England chief executive Lord Stevens of Birmingham, signalled they would seek to demand changes to the Health and Care Bill aimed at tackling staff shortages.

It follows a Tory rebellion in the Commons, led by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, in support of a move to ensure annual reports on workforce gaps and future needs, as well as an assessment of whether enough people were being trained.

It sets the stage for a legislative tussle with the Government in the Lords on the issue, as well as the change to the £86,000 cap on care costs, which critics argue would hit poorer pensioners.

Speaking at the Bill’s second reading, Baroness Harding of Winscombe said: “These last two years have been challenging for virtually everyone in the world, but it is people working in health and care who have had to dig deepest, work hardest and bear the brunt of the fight against Covid.”

Paying tribute to them, she added: “But sadly this Bill let’s these people down by not being honest about the single biggest challenge our health and care system faces – workforce.

“We do not have enough clinically trained people in almost every discipline, from healthcare assistants right through to consultants.”

Charged with developing the NHS People Plan, to help support and develop staff, she pointed out the interim report published in 2019 did not contain any forecast of workforce numbers.

Lady Harding said: “Why? Not because the work wasn’t done. It was. Not even because Government disagreed with the numbers. There are no forecasts because we could not get approval to publish the document with any forecasts in it.

“My experience is clear. Unless expressly required to do so, Government will not be honest about the mismatch between supply and demand of healthcare workers.

“It is depressing that we are debating plans, to be honest. Because it’s not plans that the service needs. It’s actual people and that means spending money on training.”

However, she pointed out that over the past eight years Health Education England’s budget had flatlined, while spending on NHS services had soared by 40%, and “unbelievably” it still did not have agreed funding for next year.

Making his maiden speech in the upper chamber, Lord Stevens, who stepped down from the top NHS job earlier this year, said: “Just about everybody can agree that in principle the major challenge facing health and social care is the strength and resilience of the workforce.

“It is, therefore, ironic that for many years now we have been promised a detailed, funded and properly thought through workforce plan for education and training stretching out over five, 10 or 15 years, and yet on each occasion when that plan is about to be produced it is muzzled.

“Jeremy Hunt’s Commons amendment would have sought to remove the muzzle. I hope the Lords will consider something similar in this House.”

Independent crossbencher Lord Patel, a former consultant obstetrician, said: “Workforce shortages is the greatest threat to the NHS and social care. Covid-19 has exacerbated the pressures staff have been under.

“They are exhausted. Without an adequate workforce none of the reforms will come to full fruition.

“There needs to be a fundamental change to workforce strategy and planning, and a much firmer footing.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2021, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Dominic Lipinski / PA.