The NHS in England employs some 1.5 million people, making it the country’s biggest employer. However, it is increasingly apparent that the NHS doesn’t have enough staff to meet demand – and the NHS Long Term Plan has accepted that “over the past decade workforce growth has not kept up with the increasing demands on the NHS”.

Along with the other health think tanks, we forecast that based on current trends the staffing gap will only continue to grow, concluding that “workforce challenges in the NHS in England now present a greater threat to the delivery and quality of health services than the funding challenges”.

It is clear that urgent action is needed. In order to monitor key developments in staff numbers and the commitments made to the NHS workforce, we have created an NHS staffing tracker. The tracker will provide transparency on progress against some important national ambitions regarding the number of GPs, mental health staff, and nurse vacancies, for example.

Different factors can affect trends in the NHS workforce at any given time, such as the state of the economy, migration policies, and most recently the Covid-19 pandemic. Where possible, we have provided some additional context to issues that might have had a significant impact on the number of people training or working as health care professionals.

Workforce measures

There are, of course, more measures of the state of NHS staffing than can be manageably compiled in one tracker. We have tried to prioritise some more critical measures, informed in part by those which have measurable ambitions outlined in national policy documents. In many cases these national ambitions have not been described in great detail, so we have had to make assumptions as to how to apply them to the available data. For instance, in many cases it is not clear when tracking progress against a target should begin and end on the charts. We have assumed that the target begins in the month or quarter following the publication of the relevant policy document, and that it stops at the end of the calendar year or in the last quarter of the ‘rolling’ year, as specified in the respective policy papers. 

We have also only included measures where data are updated regularly in readily available datasets. We have given trends back to 2009 but for some measures this is not possible.

The four areas covered in this dashboard are:

  1. Hospital and community services staff
  2. General practice staff
  3. Mental health and learning disability staff
  4. Training staff

We have selected the indicators in order to focus on workforce areas that are measurable. We suggest looking at the NHS Digital website for additional or more detailed data on the NHS workforce. Key sources for this dashboard are NHS Digital’s monthly NHS Workforce Statistics and quarterly General Practice Workforce Statistics, HEE board papers, UCAS data and the Department for Education. We have not covered social care within our dashboard since it is included in The King’s Fund’s Social Care 360, with data available from Skills for Care.

We have generally used full-time equivalent (FTE) data, which refers to the proportion of full-time contracted hours that the post-holder is contracted to work. An FTE of 1 is equivalent to a full-time worker, whereas an FTE of 0.5 indicates an employee contracted to working half the time to that of a full-time worker. This figure does not capture overtime. If we have not used FTE, this is clarified in the notes for that particular measure.

Have your say

We welcome comments on the dashboard, suggestions for areas of interest and are always interested in working with experts in their areas. Please email lucina.rolewicz@nuffieldtrust.org.uk