Union says initiative risks confusing patients and ignores ongoing hiring problems

NHS plans to introduce a new nursing role will not solve the drastic shortage of skilled nurses across the health service, Unison has warned, and risks adding greater confusion for patients.

The union said the government must not divert from the “pressing need to increase the supply of nurses” and should instead invest in better training, and development of existing health care assistants (HCAs).

In December 2015, health minister Ben Gummer announced plans to create a new nursing support role, provisionally entitled ‘nursing associate’, which would sit between healthcare support workers and fully qualified registered nurses.

Staff would receive on the job training via an apprenticeship, leading to a foundation degree, and would primarily “support nurses to spend more time using their specialist training to focus on clinical duties and take more of a lead in decisions about patient care”, Gummer said.

But Unison’s head of health Christina McAnea said: “We already have health care assistants, assistant practitioners and registered nurses on wards and in the community. There is real scope for further patient confusion with the introduction of a new role.”

The government-backed Centre for Workforce Intelligence has predicted the NHS is likely to have 47,500 fewer nurses than it needs by 2016.

While McAnea admits there is “no quick fix to plug the gaping shortages in registered nurses”, she said the proposed role must not be a diversion from the wider recruitment and training issues.

“The government must look at the nursing family as a whole and ensure there is a consistent structure to improve the training and prospects of health care assistants and assistant practitioners, including those who want to progress all the way to qualify as registered nurses,” she said.

She added that the cap on agency spending and the clampdown on nurses from overseas had seriously halted employers’ access to qualified staff.

The government said the proposals were part of a wider plan to diversify and expand the NHS workforce, and “open up a career in nursing for thousands of people from all backgrounds”.

Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: “These nursing associate roles should release time for our nurses to care and to utilise their clinical skills appropriately."

She added: "A registered nurse is a clinical decision-maker, with degree-level knowledge and skills, considerable experience of caring for people with multiple or complex conditions, plus the ability to supervise and educate more junior staff. These new roles will assist those graduate nurses and give a route into the profession to people who would otherwise have been denied the opportunity."

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said many trusts had already developed their own innovative associate practitioner roles to meet patient demands. Their experience would be valuable to designing the scope and duties – including the title – of the new role, he added.

Under the proposals, it will be up to individual NHS employers to decide how many nursing associates they need in their organisation. The plans suggest that up to 1,000 nursing associates could be trained from 2016.

A consultation on the specifics of the role, including the title, launched yesterday.