Official government statistics showing how many nurses are missing from the Welsh NHS workforce have been published for the first time following pressure from nursing groups.
The new experimental data, released by the Welsh Government on StatsWales, showed a gap of 4,966 full-time equivalent (FTE) NHS staff, of which 2,409 were registered nurses, midwives and health visitors.
“Rising nurse vacancies is a real problem”
This put the vacancy rate of registered nursing and midwifery staff at 8.9% for the quarter ending December 2022.
There were also 813 FTE vacancies for nursing and midwifery support workers, equivalent to a 6.2% vacancy rate.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Wales described nursing vacancies in the devolved country a “real problem”, and one which the NHS and Welsh Government must address.
The release of the official figures comes after RCN Wales’ 2022 report on the state of the workforce, which called on the Welsh Government to publish national vacancy data.
While this recommendation has been fulfilled, Helen Whyley, RCN Wales director, said the Welsh Government now needed to work on reducing the vacancy rate itself.
“Rising nurse vacancies is a real problem that the Welsh Government and NHS organisations need to address, now,” said Ms Whyley.
“Many nurses are choosing to work for agencies instead of the NHS because they can earn more and have control over their working lives.
“If the government addressed these issues, nursing vacancies would not be this high.”
RCN Wales has been addressing the previous lack of official data by collecting its own nursing workforce figures.
Its most recent estimate places the number of registered nurse vacancies in the Welsh NHS at around 3,000.
This figure was calculated using a mixture of publicly-available health board papers, and Freedom of Information requests – a different method to StatsWales, making the two sets of data not directly comparable.
Meanwhile, RCN Wales’ 2022 report further called on the Welsh Government to ensure pay equity between health and social care, carry out work to check that the commissioned number of student nursing places properly reflects need, and act on developing post-registration education.
It also called on the government to work with NHS Wales and Health Education and Improvement Wales to develop a national nursing retention strategy.
Earlier this year, the Welsh Government promised that a nurse retention plan would come by April. However, this plan has not yet been published, which Ms Whyley described as “disappointing”.
She continued: “The Welsh Government needs to urgently take action on pre-registration nursing student places to increase commissions to the level the NHS is asking for.
“In addition, a postgraduate education strategy for nurses to develop career pathways is a must if the nurse vacancy rate in Wales is to stop soaring up even further.”
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We’ve increased our NHS training budget for the ninth year in a row to £281.98m this year, creating an extra 527 training places, including over 380 more nurse training places.”
The spokesperson further noted that the new health figures on StatsWales would be published every quarter for monitoring purposes, but that the methodology may change given the experimental nature of the data.
According to the stats release, the vacancy rate for medical and dental staff is the same as nursing (8.9%), with smaller gaps in the ambulance service (3.6%), scientific, therapeutic and technical staff (2.2%), and administration, estates, healthcare assistants, and other support workers (2.9%).