Hospitals wards and operating theatres are being closed because of a “perfect storm” shortage of nurses in London.
Barts Health, which runs five east London hospitals, has almost 1,200 vacancies – one in five of its nurses and midwives.
Almost one in six nursing posts were vacant in May at the Royal Free trust, which has three north London hospitals, at Imperial College Healthcare – which has five west London hospitals – and at St George’s Healthcare, which has two in south west London.
Experts believe the capital is short of “several thousand” nurses. Jan Stevens, interim chief nurse at Barts Health, said: “It’s like a perfect storm. Everyone is fishing in the same pond for nurses but there is a shortage.
“This is not just for Barts Health – it just looks worse for us because we are the biggest trust in the country. Obviously the vacancies we have sound staggering, but there are a lot of vacancies across the country.”
Some of the worst problems are at St Bartholomew’s hospital, where the new Barts Heart Centre has been forced to close two theatres and two catheter labs. Staff shortages have forced the closure of 15 per cent of beds at the hospital, in Smithfield, the Barts Health board was told yesterday (Wednesday).
Professor Charles Knight, director of Barts Heart Centre, said it had 120 nurse vacancies. Eighty job offers have been made, including to 44 nurses from the Philippines. “The Philippines nurses are taking a lot longer to reach us than we anticipated,” he said. “It may be that 44 turns into 20.”
At Whipps Cross hospital, in Leytonstone, staff shortages have forced the closure of a midwife-led birth unit on 15 days so far this year. Beds were also closed on the trauma and orthopaedic wards at Whipps Cross.
Inspectors from Health Education England have sounded the alarm over two “adverse incidents” at Newham hospital’s maternity unit relating to a lack of cover.
Across the trust, 46 “red flag” warnings were raised in June in relation to staffing.
The shortage of permanent staff has sent the trust’s bill for agency staff and overtime soaring to £14.3 million a month.
As a result, Barts Health is facing a £134.9 million deficit by next March, the biggest ever seen in the NHS, and surpassing its £78 million deficit in 2014/15, itself a NHS record loss.
Demand for nurses has been driven across the country by new safer staffing ratios introduced after the Mid Staffs scandal and by hospitals having to care for older, sicker patients after the failure of care in the community initiatives. It takes three years to train a nurse.
The nurse shortage at Barts Health more than doubled from 562 full-time posts in March (2015) to 1,173 in June, partly as a result of the opening of Barts Heart Centre.
Barts Health estimates it will take until February 2017 before it can reduce vacancies to five per cent. It expects to have to make more than 9,500 job offers to plug the gaps across all its services due to the one in seven staff who quit each year.
Recruitment interviews are being conducted via Skype to assess partly-vetted foreign candidates. Barts Health is also recruiting from Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Croatia.
About 100 student nurses from London universities are due to join the trust in September.
However the trust’s position as a “failing” organisation is proving a barrier, alongside the battle to retain new recruits for longer than a year.
“They can burn out,” Ms Stevens said. “It’s relentless out there on these wards. They’re so, so busy.”