“We have 13,000 more nurses working in the NHS today compared to 2010.” Theresa May, 5 July
Theresa May tried to defend the government’s record on public sector workers at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions.
She was responding to the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who quoted several figures suggesting the number of nurses is falling.
Mr Corbyn’s numbers need some context too, but we think the Prime Minister slipped when she suggested that the total number of nurses working in the NHS had gone up by 13,000.
Earlier this week the Nursing and Midwifery Council published a report which showed that the number of nurses and midwives registered to work in the UK fell between March 2016 and March 2017.
The drop wasn’t massive – 1,783 people, or about 0.3 per cent – but it is apparently the first time the number has fallen since 2008.
To be clear, this register represents the total number of nurses and midwives – currently around 690,000 – who are allowed to work in the UK, not the number actually employed by the NHS. The register is the pool from which working nurses and midwives are drawn.
How many nurses work across the NHS?
The Prime Minister gets her “13,000 more” line from the official statistics published by NHS Digital.
It’s true that one category of nurse – described in the figures as working on “acute, elderly and general” care wards – has increased by just over 13,000.
That’s if we start counting in May 2010, when the Conservative-led coalition was elected, and counts full-time equivalent roles.
The Department of Health told us they want to focus on this figure because it captures most nurses who work on hospital wards specifically.
But there are lots of other nurses who don’t work on wards, and whose numbers have been cut since May 2010 – mental health and community health nurses would be two examples.
According to NHS Digital, there were a total of 285,893 nurses and health visitors working across the whole of the NHS in March this year, compared to 280,950 in May 2010.
That’s still an increase under Conservative chancellors, but a less impressive one of around 5,000, or just under 2 per cent.
And this comes at a time when workloads are likely to be increasing for many nurses.
Although there’s no one convenient number for measuring total NHS activity, several important measures we know about, like hospital admissions, accident and emergency attendances, and operations, have gone up dramatically over the last decade.
Mrs May and others have chosen their words more carefully on other occasions, referring to a rise in nurses “on our wards”. On this occasion, the Prime Minister wasn’t quite accurate.
It’s right to say that there are 13,000 more nurses working specifically in hospital wards than there were in May 2010, but this is a sub-group of all nurses.
Across the NHS, the total number of nurses has still risen, but only by around 5,000. And this is at a time of increasing pressure on many areas of the service.
The numbers Mr Corbyn quoted in parliament refer to all registered nurses, not just those currently employed by the NHS. This number fell in 2016/17 for the first time in recent years.