MORE than 7,000 nurses could be cut from NHS hospitals despite mounting pressure on accident and emergency departments as a winter crisis sweeps across the country, new plans reveal.
Every area has been ordered to draw up plans to save £22bn and reorganise services to cater for rising demand from an ageing population, Health Service Journal reports.
The forecast, seen by HSJ, suggest NHS staff could be slashed by more than 17,000 staff by 2020, which includes 7,300 nurses and midwives.
But the plans would require the health service to buck the trends that have seen A&E departments come under immense pressure, branded a humanitarian crisis by the British Red Cross.
Overwhelmed casualty units are failing to meet key performance targets and are turning ambulances away.
Data from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine showed just 77.6 per cent of patients were treated within four hours of visiting A&E — blamed on a lack of casualty medics and social care cuts.
It is the lowest since records began in 2004, and falling way short of the 95 per cent target.
Health authorities have been asked to draw up 44 sustainability and transformation plans (STPs) to mitigate rising pressure on the NHS.
The plans aimed to set out how the NHS would manage within historically low funding growth in the next few years, while trying to maintain standards.
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NHS England insists the move to axe nurses will improve patient care by shifting investment, including more registered nurses, to GP practices, but this is not outlined in the plans.
Last week NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said: "It is certain that we are going to need more qualified nurses in the National Health Service in five years’ time than now."
But HSJ analysed a sample of one in four STPs and found savings heavily rely on job cuts of 2.3 per cent in registered nurses and a 1.6 per cent reduction in all jobs.
The only jobs that would be increased under the plans are GPs and non-GPs working in general practices.
An NHS England spokeswoman said reviewing all of the plans showed “the number of qualified nurses in hospitals, community services and primary care” would “go up by 2020-21”.
She said: "We are confident that a growing NHS will see more qualified nurses employed across England."
Senior doctors and charities have warned that the NHS is facing its worst winter crisis in its history, with more than half of NHS trusts declaring major alerts in the first week of January.
It comes as shocking new figures also revealed around 7,000 of England’s 137,000 hospital beds are filled each day by patients who should be discharged – taking the toll of hospital "bed blocking" 52 per cent higher than five years ago.
Nigel Edwards, chief executive of think tank the Nuffield trust, said: "Demand has been going up by around four per cent a year for around two decades and the demography of the next three to five years is characterised by the population ageing rapidly and growing – with a bulge in the group that uses healthcare most.
"These are very bold, if not heroic assumptions.
"The question is whether this is achievable – and if it was, would it really be palatable?"
Tom Sandford, Director of the Royal College of Nursing, England, said the risk these plans pose to patient safety are "truly frightening".
He said: "Nursing staff make up the biggest proportion of the NHS workforce. There are already 24,000 vacant nursing posts across the UK.
"If these estimates are even close to accurate, the implications for patient safety are truly frightening. We know that patient care suffers without the right number of nurses.
"The nursing workforce has taken one blow after another – under-staffing, impossible caseloads, poor pay and being forced to make life and death decisions in hospital corridors.
"We have been hearing from members how the current situation is the worst that many have ever experienced. The situation cannot be allowed to worsen."
“We must attract more people into the profession and the Government must invest in nursing across all areas be it in A&E departments, in schools or in GP practices.”
Last year, in response to STPs emerging that indicated they might reduce nursing posts, health secretary Jeremy Hunt told HSJ: "I don’t want to be rigid or inflexible about new roles, but if you ask me whether it is likely that local areas are going to be able to reduce the number of trained nurses, I would be very surprised if any actually managed that."
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