NHS Long Term Workforce Plan released

The workforce plan, originally set for release in 2022, outlines the key areas of training and retaining staff, but does not focus on the eye care workforce

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NHS England has released its long-awaited Long Term Workforce Plan, which focuses on recruiting and retaining staff. 

The plan aims to address existing NHS vacancies and the needs of an ageing population, NHS England said.

The training and recruitment of NHS staff will involve doubling both the number of medical school and adult nurse training places, and increasing the number of GP training places by 50%.

Bringing trainees into healthcare settings sooner and working with the General Medical Council (GMC) and medical schools on the creation of four-year medical degrees and medical internships are part of the published plans.

NHS England will work with the GMC and medical schools to “explore options for a shortened medical degree programme which would be available for some existing healthcare professions such as pharmacists and paramedics,” the report said.

There are approximately 112,000 live vacancies within the NHS, with predictions that this could rise to 360,000 by 2036–2037 if changes are not made.

The newly released plans aim to cut the amount of money that is spent on agency staff by £10 billion between 2030–2031 and 2036–2037.

It is hoped that the plans will see an extra 60,000 doctors, 170,000 nurses and 71,000 allied health professionals in place by 2036–2037.

A focus on degree apprenticeships will “ensure the NHS can draw on the widest pool of talent,” NHS England said.

NHS England emphasised that the degree apprenticeships will ensure trainees “meet the high clinical standards required by the relevant professional regulators.”
The Government will release an extra £2.4 billion of funding for additional education and training places over five years.

Plans to increase retention of existing staff include reforms to the NHS pension scheme, increased opportunities for career development, and more options for flexible working.

The ongoing issue of increased pay for NHS staff was not included in the report, which is backed by the UK Government and lays out plans for the next 15 years.
It will be refreshed every two years in order to keep up with changing needs, NHS England said.

NHS England called the plan “a once in a generation opportunity to put staffing on a sustainable footing and improve patient care” which “focusses on retaining existing talent and making the best use of new technology alongside the biggest recruitment drive in health service history.”

It has been released ahead of the 75th anniversary of the NHS, which takes place on Wednesday 5 July.

Professor Dame Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, said: “This plan has been a long time coming to fruition and we are so pleased and relieved that it is finally here.

“The fact that there now is a plan is thanks to the consistent lobbying of more than 100 health and care organisations, including the NHS itself, and a Government that has seen the value in planning for a future beyond just one political cycle.”

Stokes-Lampard acknowledged that the published plans will need to be adapted in the coming years.

“It is also important that this plan is seen as the first of many and will be evolving over time, so where people feel it is not providing the detail or nuance they were seeking now, they have the assurance of influencing future versions,” she said.

She added: “We know things are very tough for patients and the hard-pressed health and care staff right across the UK, so I for one sincerely hope this plan brings hope with glimpses of a more positive future to all who work in the NHS and the millions of people who rely on it every day.”

What the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan means for optometry

Optometry has not been made a primary focus of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan in its current guise.

There is, however, an acknowledgement that primary eye care providers “have the knowledge and skills required to deliver more eye care services in the community” under the Reform – Working and training differently section of the report.

“Working closely with secondary care specialists and using technological innovation, such as digitally enabled image sharing, to deliver more eye care services on the High Street could help alleviate pressure in general practice and hospital eye services, and improve patient outcomes,” the report said.

No further details have been provided on how this innovation might be facilitated in practice.

There is one mention of ophthalmology in the published plan, which focuses on the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in providing diagnostic support.

The NHS AI Lab, set up in 2020 and currently running 86 projects evaluating healthcare AI products, has advised that “AI can free up staff time and improve efficiency of services” in areas including ophthalmology, the report said.

It added: “AI has the potential to free up clinical time and improve accuracy and efficiency of diagnostics in services such as ophthalmology, imaging, pathology and dermatology by acting as a first reader on images and eventually automating some clinical decisions where safe to do so.”

The Royal College of Ophthalmologists’ (RCOphth) Workforce Census, published in March 2023, revealed that 76% of units do not have enough consultants to meet current patient demand. 

Outgoing president of the RCOphth, Bernie Chang, spoke about the workforce challenges currently being faced by ophthalmology during an April meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Eye Health and Visual Impairment.

Do you think the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan should have had a greater focus on optometry?

  • Yes

    32 91%
  • No

    3 8%
  • Unsure

    0 0%

OT will continue to explore what the NHS Workforce Plan will mean for optometry. To share your perspective, get in touch via [email protected]