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A patient safety warning was issued today as it emerged that more than 8,000 nursing posts in London are unfilled.

Research by the Royal College of Nursing found the vacancy rate had increased across the capital from 11 per cent to 14 per cent in a year.

This was forcing hospitals to spend vast amounts on overtime and agency staff to provide temporary cover. Barts Health, the UK’s biggest NHS trust, spends £5.7 million a month on stand-in nurses and midwives – 23 per cent of its nursing budget.

The RCN London Safe Staffing Report 2014 found that in July there were more than 1,000 extra nurses in staff jobs than 12 months earlier. But with 60 per cent of the 2,500 new nursing posts unfilled, the gap between the number budgeted for and those on the payroll had grown.

The Francis Report, produced last year in the wake of the Mid Staffs scandal, made a strong link between staffing levels and patients safety and forced NHS trusts to scrutinise staff cover.

The RCN said the NHS pay freeze, increasing demand from patients and rising cost of living had combined to create a “critical shortage” of registered nurses. It said some trusts advertising for staff had not found a single candidate to interview.

The staff shortage is worst in mental health trusts, with high vacancy rates reported by Camden and Islington, Barnet, Enfield and Haringey and Hounslow and Richmond trusts.

RCN London regional director Bernell Bussue said: “An inescapable link is now established between staffing levels, skill mix and patient safety, and the number of nursing posts across London has increased sharply this year. However London still suffers from a critical shortage of nurses and only 40 per cent of the new posts have been filled.

“As the cost of living continues to rise, much more needs to be done, right across the system, to make sure London remains an attractive and affordable place for nurses to work, so that local employers can recruit enough staff to deliver high quality patient care.”

The research, based on freedom of information responses from trusts, found that nine trusts employed fewer nurses than a year ago. Seven trusts were running vacancy rates of 19 per cent to 23 per cent.

Many of the new posts were at junior levels, prompting concern at a lack of oversight of patient safety on wards.

An NHS England (London) spokeswoman said: “We are working closely with Health Education England and trusts to ensure that adequate numbers are recruited into nurse education places at universities, which will help us meet future demand.

“We are also actively working to attract nurses who have left the profession to return to the health service through additional return to practice courses.

“A national review of nursing education is currently underway which will help ensure the capital can meet the future requirements of health care outlined in the NHS England Five Year Forward View and the London Health Commission.”

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