By Chaminda Jayanetti
The number of nurses working in community health, mental health and learning disability NHS services in England has fallen sharply since 2010, according to official figures published recently.
The overall number of nurses employed by the NHS has risen in recent years, having fallen during the first two years of the coalition government.
This is due to rises in the number of nurses working in headline-grabbing areas of the NHS such as adult acute hospitals and children’s care, including neonatal care.
However, these topline figures hide marked declines in the number of nurses working in less politically sensitive parts of the NHS, according to data published by the Health & Social Care Information Centre, a department of government.
The number of “full time equivalent” nurses working in NHS learning disabilities services has fallen by a third since May 2010, from 5,368 at the dawn of the coalition to 3,575 at the end of February 2016, the most recent date for which figures have been collated.
The majority of the fall came between 2010 and 2014, with numbers steadying since then. The number of nurses working in NHS community learning disabilities services has fallen by a fifth since 2010, but the number working in other NHS learning disabilities services collapsed by nearly 45 percent in that time.
Community health services have long been the supposed priority of both Conservative and Labour health policy, with treatment in “the community” seen as a way of reducing demand for expensive acute hospital care.
But the number of nurses working in community health actually fell by 12 percent between May 2010 and February 2016, from 41,555 to 36,411. The fall mostly occurred between 2010 and 2013, with numbers levelling off since then. The reduction has been driven by a 41 percent cut in the number of district nurses, from 7,610 in May 2010 to 4,470 at the end of February this year.
Mental health nurses have also declined, with an 11 percent fall in numbers between 2010 and 2016, from 40,630 to 35,970. Non-community psychiatric nurses have borne virtually the entire brunt of the cut.
Instead, it is nurses in adults’ and children’s hospitals who have driven overall nursing staff levels up, from just under 170,000 in May 2010 to 177,500 in February 2016.
Similarly, overall numbers of nursing support staff – nursing assistants, healthcare assistants, auxiliary nurses and the like – have risen since 2010, but this masks sharp falls in certain areas of the NHS.
Nursing assistants and healthcare assistants in NHS learning disabilities and community psychiatry services have all fallen markedly, although numbers have been sustained in non-community psychiatric services.
The impact has been particularly severe in learning disabilities services. The number of nursing assistants, healthcare assistants and support workers has halved between May 2010 and February 2016, from 10,767 to just 5,317. In fact, the number of staff in community learning disabilities services has cratered by 70 percent in that time, from 1,805 to just 546 across the whole of England as of the end of February 2016.