Headlines: July 19th, 2005

The Government will be told today that the solution to the shortage of nurses is under its nose. With the Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt due to speak at a conference in London organised by the biggest health union, UNISON, the union is publishing a study which shows 84 per cent of the 400 healthcare assistants at the event would like to train as nurses.UNISON says, though, that health care staff cannot afford a 50 per cent drop in their salaries to live on student bursaries and it is calling for a system of professional secondments to encourage them to take up nurse training.

Gail Adams, UNISON Head of Nursing, will tell the conference that there is an army of 220,000 healthcare assistants working in the National Health Service who already know exactly what life on hospital wards is like. Many of them are ready and willing to fill the nursing gap. “They are a dedicated group with a wide variety of skills, training and clinical expertise and they already deliver high quality patient care. If you invest in them, they will reward you with loyalty,” she said.

The problem, she explained, was that healthcare assistants were mainly women with childcare or other caring responsibilities as well as financial commitments. For them the only realistic route into training would be through a secondment. The UNISON survey shows that 97 per cent of healthcare assistants would be encouraged to take up nurse training if they were offered secondments and the union is pledging to lobby the Government for more places.

In 1997 the Government announced ring-fenced funding for a secondment scheme for healthcare assistants and there are currently about 12,000 in training. UNISON says, though, that there are still no consistent and transparent guidelines on how seconded placements are allocated.

Gail Adams said healthcare assistants had historically had little if any access to education as training budgets were directed mainly at nurses and doctors. The secondment scheme was a positive step forward but it needed greater funding and an end to the lottery of who got places.

Today’s survey shows 84 per cent of healthcare assistants want access to professional training, compared to 75 per cent in 2003. Secondments were seen as an incentive by 97 per cent of the assistants and only 14 per cent said staffing levels were adequate.