Thousands of NHS jobs are vacant in the North East, as health bosses warn that lack of staff is putting patient safety at risk.
The NHS Confederation, which represents health trusts and other NHS bodies, asked managers to rate their biggest concerns - and lack of staff was top of the list.
It’s published a report warning: “The workforce crisis in the NHS must be addressed – nine in ten (91 per cent) health leaders said that understaffing is putting patient safety and care at risk.”
And the most recent NHS figures show that there were 22,912 vacancies in the North of England. It meant that 6.1% of posts, around one in 16, was vacant at any given moment.
The vacancy rate was highest in mental health, with 8.2% of posts vacant.
Lack of staff may help explain why some NHS workers are carrying out significant unpaid overtime.
The National NHS staff survey found 52% of staff at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust worked unpaid overtime, with 9% saying they do at least six hours extra a week.
At County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, 57% of staff work unpaid overtime.
At Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust the figure is 50%.
At South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust the figure is also 50%.
And at The Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, 55% of staff said they work unpaid overtime.
The NHS employs around 1.2 million staff nationwide across its range of services, making it the largest employer in the England. But there are more than 100,000 vacancies in England in hospital and community services alone. It means hospitals and other health providers are often forced to rely on expensive agency and temporary staff.
The NHS Confederation said in its report: “Workforce is widely regarded as the biggest single challenge facing the health and care sector.
“The inability to develop, recruit and retain a skilled workforce risks both stretching our existing services to breaking point and undermining the sector’s plans for transforming future service provision. While a national recruitment campaign is underway, the scale of the challenges facing both the NHS and social care are stark.”
It comes after an inquiry by MPs earlier this year warned that the staff shortages helped explain why some health trusts were going dramatically over budget.
The inquiry warned: “Trust chief executives consider that staffing shortages in the NHS is the biggest challenge facing trusts and is one of the biggest threats to financial sustainability in the NHS.”
How is the NHS performing?
Separate statistics suggest patients are facing long waits for treatment - although some hospitals trusts in the North East have shorter waiting time than those in other parts of the country.
Figures published last week showed that at A&Es run by The Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Trust, 93.6% of people waited less than four hours from arrival to admission, discharge or transfer last month.
The official target for hospitals nationwide is that at least 95% of patients should be seen within four hours.
At South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Trust’s A&Es, the proportion of patients waiting less than four hours was only 69.7% in October - the lowest proportion since the figures went monthly in June 2015.
For A&Es nationwide, including minor injuries units, 83.6% of patients waited less than four hours.
This is the worst performance since records began in November 2010.
What has happened to NHS funding?
NHS funding has risen under the Conservatives.
It rose more under the last Labour government.
Planned spending for the Department of Health and Social Care in England is £139.3 billion in 2019/20.
Analysis by the independent Kings Fund, a leading health think tank, shows budgets rose by 1.5 per cent each year on average in the 10 years between 2009/10 to 2018/19, compared to the 3.7 per cent average rises since the NHS was established.
These increases are in real terms, which means after the impact of inflation is taken into account.
What do the politicians say?
Jonathon Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, said: “It is unprecedented for NHS leaders to warn that staff shortages are so severe that they can’t guarantee the safety of their patients.
“Boris Johnson’s Tories should hang their heads in shame. They have created this crisis by slashing training places and ending the nurses bursary.
“Labour’s NHS rescue plan will restore student nursing bursaries and recruit the thousands of extra staff needed to keep patients safe.”
Conservatives say that last year they announced a record £33.9 billion settlement for the NHS - the largest, longest cash settlement for the NHS in history.
Conservatives also say they have launched the biggest hospital building programme for a generation, having approved plans to build six new hospitals with funding of £2.7 bilion.
In addition, 21 projects to build new hospitals - creating 34 new hospitals between them - are sharing in £100 million to help them work on detailed plans designed eventually to lead to the schemes going ahead.
Labour and Conservatives also disagree over whether a trade deal with the US would put the NHS at risk.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn claims that Boris Johnson has a secret plan “for a sell-out US trade deal that would drive up the cost of medicines” and open the NHS to further privatisation.
He has said “that a Labour government will exclude the NHS, medicines and public services from any trade deals – and make that binding in law.” Instead, Labour is planning to “invest properly in the health service, develop generic medicines ... and reverse the privatisation of our NHS.”
Responding, James Cleverly MP, Chairman of the Conservative Party, said: “The NHS is not for sale, never has been, and never will be. We will never allow any trade agreement to change this fundamental fact and will continue to ensure that patients have access to clinically and cost-effective medicines that are affordable to the NHS.”