The past, present and future of NHS nurse numbers

The Government's manifesto pledge to increase the number of nurses working in the NHS by 50,000 by 2024 has been achieved, representing historic levels of growth. However, not all branches of nursing are benefitting equally and challenges remain to increase domestic supply and reduce reliance on vast levels of overseas recruitment.

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Published: 30/11/2023

One of the flagship ambitions in the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto was to increase the number of nurses working in the NHS by 50,000 by 2024. And the latest data suggest that, in the four years since September 2019 (which the government are using as their baseline), the number of nurses has indeed increased by 51,245.

This represents historic levels of growth. An average annual net increase of around 11,100 more nurses was needed to achieve the 50,000 ambition by March 2024 and, as far as data permits, it appears that this level has only been met three times in nearly 60 years prior to the pledge.

As ever, there is some important nuance beneath the headline figure. Increases have not been realised in some branches of nursing – learning disability nurses have fallen by 5.5% - and in some regions, with the North East & Yorkshire and London both seeing 14% increase in nurses compared to 23% in the South East. Also, this growth has been reliant on vast levels of overseas recruitment and concerns have been raised about the ethics of heightened recruitment from ‘red-list’ countries, as well as challenges in growing the domestic supply

The ambition does not stop here, with the NHS long-term workforce plan projecting the need for at least 197,000 more (57%) nurses by 2036/37 – equivalent to over 13,100 nurses per year on average. Key to this will be increasing the domestic supply – with ambitions to have 82% more people starting nursing courses in 2031 than now – which, if successful, could decrease the reliance on overseas recruitment. To achieve these ambitions, lessons will have to be learnt and we are excited to be part of an NIHR collaboration that will look at describing and addressing the benefits and challenges found as part of the government’s ’50,000 nurses’ programme.