Lord Stevens accuses Government of ‘wilful blindness’ on health and social care workforce planning

A former NHS boss has accused the Government of “wilful blindness” over the need for better workforce planning in health and social care.

Lord Stevens of Birmingham, who stepped down as NHS England chief executive, levelled his criticism as it was warned at Westminster there was a staffing crisis in the sector.

The independent crossbencher and other peers are demanding regular assessments of current and future workforce needs, aimed at tackling shortages.

The call came as the House of Lords continued its detailed scrutiny of the Health and Care Bill.

It follows a Tory rebellion in the Commons, led by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, in support of similar measure, and sets the stage for a legislative tussle between the upper chamber and the Government on the issue.

Lord Stevens (pictured) said: “It is a statement of the blindingly obvious, particularly coming out of the pandemic, that we need better workforce planning.

“At a time when staff are exhausted having dealt with Covid for several years now, at a time when the NHS is confronting the need to deal with the backlog of care.

“But frankly it would be a statement of the blindingly obvious at any time because the lead times for decisions on training for health professionals are such that they go beyond any individual term of Parliament, any individual Government manifesto.”

He added: “Of course, it may well be argued by the Government that we are about to turn a corner and that although there has been a degree of short-termism hitherto, things are about to improve.

“But I am afraid that I think we are entitled to treat that proposition with a degree of scepticism, because although what has been said up until now may be blindingly obvious, in fact what we have been confronted with is wilful blindness.

“Health Education England, which should be looking at 10 years, does not yet have its running budget for 10 weeks time.”

Lord Stevens hoped the Government “would recognise that ignorance is not bliss”.

Tory former health minister Baroness Cumberlege said: “There can be no doubt that Covid and its variants are a crisis for health and care. But Covid is a crisis atop another crisis, a deeper malignancy, which constrains and threatens the NHS and the care sector.

“I speak of the workforce crisis, now considered by experts, and by people in the service and outside it, the single greatest problem that the service now faces.”

She added: “If we don’t have credible, reliable up to date numbers how can we plan?

“The health and care sector urgently needs better workforce planning.”

She went on: “To carry on like this would be to condemn our care services to fly blind through a storm.

“We owe it to the staff working in health and care, and to the public who rely on them, to do better, to plan better, to prepare for the future, to ensure the NHS and the care sector are at full strength.”

Ex-Test and Trace chief and Tory peer Baroness Harding of Winscombe, who stepped down as chair of NHS Improvement in October, said: “All our fantastic, lofty ambitions for our health and care system are for nought if we don’t have the people to deliver it and we should be under no illusions that we don’t today.”

Independent crossbencher Lord Kakkar, former professor of surgery at University College London, said: “Without effective workforce planning the NHS and the care system is in peril.”

Responding, health minister Lord Kamall pointed out the Government had commissioned “a robust long-term strategic framework” for the health and social care workforce.

Measures in the Bill would also “increase transparency and accountability of the workforce planning process”, he said.

But the minister added: “I recognise the strength of feeling… This clearly is going to require more work and more discussions.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2022, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Leon Neal / PA.