THE NHS is in 'crisis', with a shortage of doctors, nurses and midwives crippling the health service across England, recent figures suggest - but the local picture is more nuanced.

A recent report from a cross-party group of MPs led by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the Government must tackle ‘the greatest workforce crisis in history in the NHS’ as it deals with the after effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The study by the health and social care committee criticised the absence of a long-term plan to address stalling recruitment and persistent short-staffing, adding that the NHS is currently in need of tens of thousands of workers.

But locally, staffing levels appear robust. NHS data for the North Cumbria Integrated Care Trust show how the workforce has changed in recent years.

The number of doctors has climbed in the last year, figures indicate. The latest figures from NHS Digital show there was the equivalent of 559 full-time doctors as of April at North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust.

This was up from 539 last year.

Nationally, there were 128,000 full-time doctors in NHS trusts in April, up from 124,000 the year before and 104,000 in 2016.

But the workforce figures, which provide a snapshot overview, do not account for the number of healthcare workers who joined and left the NHS in between counts - nor do they indicate how staffing levels compare to the demand for services.

The report by the health and social care committee said the NHS must still recruit a further 12,000 hospital doctors to address a current national shortfall.

The British Medical Association (BMA) called on the Government to publish workforce projections, reduce medicine's gender pay gap, and increase the supply of affordable childcare.

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Emma Runswick, the BMA deputy chair of council, said: "If the Government continues to ignore this – or continued warnings from reports like this – the impact on health professionals, patients and the very health of our society does not bear thinking about."

In terms of midwifery, there are fewer midwives across the country than last year.

The figures show there was the equivalent of 21,741 working full-time hours in April, down from 22,374 last year.

It comes as the MPs’ report says 2,000 more midwives are urgently needed to address staffing shortages.

At the North Cumbria Integrated Care Trust there were 103 midwives in April – down from 111 last year.

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The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) suggested people are leaving the industry. Suzanne Tyler, executive director at the RCM, said: "Employers and the Government must step up, put in the resources, and show they really value their staff."

The figures also show there were 1,586 nurses and health visitors at the North Cumbria Integrated Care Trust in April.

This is up from 1,437 last year and 1,062 at the start of the pandemic.

But the committee said there is a 'vast' shortage of nurses nationally, with the NHS needing to urgently recruit more than 50,000 nurses and midwives.

In England, there were 319,000 full-time nurses and health visitors in April – up from 310,000 the year before and 285,000 in 2016.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said persistent understaffing ‘poses a serious risk to staff and patient safety’ and urged the Government to take immediate action.

Patricia Marquis, director of the RCN, said the report, which highlighted unacceptable pay for some NHS nurses who are struggling to feed their families and pay their rent, ‘should make the Government rethink the latest pay deal that follows a decade of real terms pay cuts’.

Understaffing is not the only issue facing the NHS workforce.

Different NHS Digital figures show trusts are still grappling with staff sickness, as the absence rate across all roles nationally rose to 6 per cent in March – the fourth highest month since the pandemic began and well above pre-pandemic levels of 4.1 per cent in March 2019.

At the North Cumbria Integrated Care Trust, 6.1 per cent of full-time staff days were lost due to sickness absence in March.

In March 2019, the rate stood at 4.3 per cent.

The RCN said that the high absence figures were 'yet more evidence of the need for drastic action and investment in the nursing workforce'.

NHS vacancies have also increased more in the year to March than any 12-month period since records began in 2018.

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Separate data reveals the NHS had 106,000 FTE vacancies at the end of March, up from 76,000 the year prior.

These include almost 39,000 nursing vacancies, over 4,000 more than 12 months ago.

In the northwest, there were 12,822 total vacancies as of 31 March – up from 9,701 a year earlier – including 4,543 for nurses.

North Cumbria Trust response

A spokesperson for the Trust said that more up-to-date figures saw increases in both midwife and nurse numbers.

They added: "Overall, we have made positive progress in recruiting to clinical posts over the past year.

"We have recruited approximately 200 international nurses and we will be welcoming our first international midwives later this month. We have also invested £3.8m in additional permanent nursing and healthcare assistant positions.

“Despite this progress, recruitment is still a challenge for us in some specialities in line with national shortages but we are continuing to work on innovative ways to attract more people to work for the NHS in Cumbria.”

Mental health services

Last month, health leaders appeared before a committee of councillors this week to discuss the pressures facing NHS mental health services in Cumbria, including struggles to retain staff while caseloads rise.

Representatives of Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust attended the Cumbria Health Scrutiny meeting to update councillors on their work.

And councillors heard that CNTW’s mental health services are experiencing a period of significant demand since lockdown restrictions were lifted.

Referrals across the board remained steady in 2019 never topping 1,000, a steep drop-off was seen in 2020 when the nation went into lockdown.

From mid-2020 onwards, referrals have steadily climbed towards 3,000 in 2021.

And beds are under 'a significant amount of pressure' running at 100 per cent occupancy or close.

Government response

The Department of Health and Social Care said it has commissioned NHS England to develop a long-term workforce plan.

A spokesperson said: "We are growing the health and social care workforce, with over 4,000 more doctors, and 9,600 more nurses compared to last year, and over 1,400 more doctors in general practice compared to March 2019.

"As we continue to deliver on our commitment to recruit 50,000 more nurses by 2024, we are also running a £95million recruitment drive for maternity services."