Mental health campaigners welcome NHS workforce plan

The long-awaited workforce plan sets out the government’s intention to create more training places for mental health nurses and doctors

10th July 2023 about a 4 minute read
“A compassionate, well-trained and well-resourced NHS workforce that collaborates with social care and the voluntary sector is integral to supporting people severely affected by mental illness to recover and have a good quality of life." Mark Winstanley, chief executive, Rethink Mental Illness

Mental health campaigners and charities have welcomed government plans to boost the NHS workforce.

The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, published at the end of June, sets out a strategy both for recruiting and retaining more health care staff. By 2031, it promises to double medical school training, increase the number of GP training places by 50% and almost double the number of adult nurse training places. These will include 5,000 more training places for mental and learning disability nurses each year. A higher proportion of the new medical students will carry out their postgraduate training in primary care, mental health and cancer, the plan states. The government will spend £2.4 billion over the next five years to fund the additional education and training places.

Under current trends, the plan notes, by 2036/37 the mental health nursing and learning disability nursing shortfall will grow to more than 17,000 full-time equivalents (FTEs).

The plan also sets out the need to deliver more preventative and early intervention services in the community, with the aim of reducing pressures on acute care. There are also strategies for improving retention in the plan, including making sure staff can work flexibly, have access to health and wellbeing support and “work in a team that is well-led.”

Mind, the leading mental health charity, said it was pleased at the government’s decision to expand the mental health workforce. Vicki Nash, associate director of policy, campaigns and public affairs at the charity, said: “Tackling the gulf between the level of need and the NHS’ ability to deliver quality care depends on the capacity and skill set of the workforce.” She added: “The support of an understanding, empathetic clinician can make all the difference to people’s lives so a focus on embedding the right culture and diversifying the workforce are important steps to improving overall levels of care.”

Nash said it was “encouraging” to see a focus on moving towards a community-based model of health care: “Growing the number of the types of roles and teams that are often provided by the voluntary sector will help to move to a model of care that supports people’s wider needs.”

Starting from a low base

NHS Confederation, a membership body for NHS organisations, said it welcomed the plans to increase the number of mental health and learning disability nurses. In a statement, it said: “It will, however, take time to increase these roles as we are starting from a very low base due to fewer nurses taking up training in these areas and domestic shortfall is not typically filled by international recruitment.”

It also said that the increase in training places for clinical psychologists and child and adolescent psychotherapists was positive, but added: “We are concerned that there does not seem to be any plans to increase the number of educational mental health practitioners who work in mental health support teams.” Matthew Taylor, the organisation’s chief executive, said that the focus on boosting retention was “vital” and “more important than the supply side of the workforce equation.”

The charity Rethink Mental Illness said that staff shortages in mental health had had an impact on the care received by patients. Mark Winstanley, the charity’s chief executive, said: “A compassionate, well-trained and well-resourced NHS workforce that collaborates with social care and the voluntary sector is integral to supporting people severely affected by mental illness to recover and have a good quality of life. This is about both numbers and people, ensuring all services are adequately staffed to provide high quality care, while also supporting the wellbeing and career development of those staff who do such an important job.”

The Royal College of Psychiatrists welcomed the decision to double medical school places. Dr Adrian James, the College’s president, said:This is something we have been calling for, as it is critical to ensuring first sustainable, and then growing numbers of psychiatrists. A long-term plan for staffing the NHS is crucial to improving patient care and reducing the access gap.” He added that the plan “provides an important framework for future-proofing mental health services by recruiting and retaining much-needed psychiatrists and other mental health care professionals.”

FCC Insight

Like others in the sector, we are pleased to see the government set out plans to increase the number of doctors and nurses being trained, and to improve retention rates. We particularly welcome the plan’s parity of esteem between physical and mental health, and the decision to create 5,000 more training places for mental and learning disability nurses. The increased emphasis in the workforce plan on community care to reduce pressures on acute services is also very welcome, and something we have been calling for. Clearly, there will be challenges in implementing such an ambitious plan, not least in finding time from senior staff to train new recruits. We firmly believe, however, that this is a positive step in the right direction.