The shadow foreign secretary took over from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions today, squaring off against Cabinet Office minister Damian Green, who was deputising for Theresa May.
Emily Thornberry started with an attack on the Conservatives’ record on the NHS. She said numbers are lower now than when the government took office.
Mr Green replied that there were more doctors, nurses and midwives in the NHS. He later said there were more nurses “on our wards”.
Neither politician spelled out exactly which timescale they were talking about, but it is clear from the wider context of the discussion that both sides are measuring NHS staff numbers from May 2010, when Conservative health ministers began their stewardship of the NHS.
Emily Thornberry said: “The overall number of NHS nurses and health visitors is down by 1,500 this year. And the numbers are now lower than when this government came into office.”
That’s true if you look at the official health service workforce stats, published by NHS Digital. It’s usual to look at the full-time equivalent figure, which takes into account the hours worked by full and part-time staff.
The latest figures are from August this year. In that month, the equivalent of 280,307 full-time nurses and health visitors were employed by the NHS. The figure was around 650 higher at the time of the May 2010 General Election.
It’s also true that the August figure is around 1,500 lower than it was a year earlier.
This appears to contradict what Mr Green said in his answer, when he insisted there were “more nurses” under the Conservatives.
He said: “There are, as I say, more operations being down, more nurses, more doctors, more midwives. The health service is expanding. We have got 14,900 more doctors; 1,500 more medical school places each year.”
But he changed his language slightly in the next sentence: “And we’ve got 10,000 more nurses on our wards.”
The key phrase here is “on our wards”. Mr Green’s claim stands up if we are talking about one sub-set of nurses: those who work in “acute, elderly and general care”.
These kinds of nurses have indeed seen their numbers increase by about 10,000 since May 2010 – they’ve gone up from 162,565 to 172,677.
So it’s possible to say that these nurses – described by the government as those who work “on our wards” – have risen since May 2010, but it’s no longer possible to say that about all nurses.
The total figure for nurses and health visitors is now lower than when the Conservatives first came to power.
It’s worth noting that the position has deteriorated sharply in the last few months. When we last checked this claim in the summer, it was still possible for the Conservatives to claim that overall nursing numbers had risen on their watch.
Since then, the NHS has lost more than 5,000 of all kinds of nurses – taking the total to pre-May 2010 levels. And the “acute, elderly and general” nurses that ministers prefer to talk about have fallen by around 3,000.
Mrs Thornberry said, correctly, that the Royal College of Nursing and others have issued warnings about large numbers of experienced nurses leaving the profession, with many citing concerns about working conditions.
Mr Green was right to say that the government recently announced a package of measures designed to increase nurse training places and retain staff.
Mr Green is the latest minister to talk about a rise in the number of nurses “on our wards”. It’s true that the sub-set of nurses who work in “acute, elderly and general” care has grown under the Conservatives.
But the most recent figures show that if you count all nurses and health visitors – including district nurses, those who work in mental health, and many other categories – the number has fallen to below May 2010 levels.
If ministers simply state that there are “more nurses” under the Conservatives, without including that qualifier, they are wrong.