Ministers are to invest more than £170m in training thousands of additional apprentice nurses to help tackle staffing shortages in the NHS.
Hospitals will be able to take on 2,000 nursing degree apprentices each year for the next four years as part of the government’s promise to have 50,000 more nurses by 2024.
Nursing apprenticeships were introduced in 2017 as part of opening up routes for people to train as qualified registered nurses.
Apprentices complete a four-year training course while working in the NHS and are able to earn a salary, meaning those who cannot afford to study at university can still train.
Before the coronavirus crisis, the NHS had more than 40,000 nurse vacancies despite record numbers of nurses being recruited by hospitals since the 2013 Mid Staffordshire care scandal, which exposed the safety risks of understaffed wards.
Despite these increases, the numbers of patients and extra demand on services has outstripped the NHS workforce growth, meaning many wards remain dangerously understaffed.
The Department of Health and Social Care said hospitals will be paid £8,300 per placement a year for new and existing nurse apprentices to cover costs and encourage take-up.
Employers in England will also benefit from a new payment, announced last month, of £2,000 for each new apprentice they hire aged under 25, and £1,500 for each new apprentice they hire aged 25 and over, up until 31 January 2021.
The nursing degree apprenticeship offers courses across the four main fields of nursing: adult, children, mental health and learning disability. Students must meet the same criteria as typical three-year degree nurses and will qualify as registered nurses able to join the Nursing and Midwifery Council register at the end of their course.
The Royal College of Nursing has said that there is a role for apprenticeships to give people a route to becoming a registered nurse, but it added: “It must be recognised that the new degree apprenticeship is not sufficient to solve workforce gap issues. Only the traditional three-year university route can begin to address the workforce vacancy crisis at the necessary scale and speed.”
Sally Warren, director of policy at the King’s Fund health think tank, welcomed the move as a way to attract more people into nursing, but she added: “It alone will not solve chronic staff shortages in health and care services.”
“Even before the pandemic, the health and care workforce was in a state of crisis, with high levels of work-related stress, reports of overworked staff looking to leave their jobs, and a shortage of about 40,000 nurses,” she said. “It’s been 18 months since an NHS workforce strategy was promised, but so far we have only seen piecemeal announcements that do not add up to a comprehensive plan.”
She also criticised the lack of announcements for social care, when the sector went into the Covid-19 crisis with over 120,000 vacancies.
“Health and social care services work closely together and in the absence of comparable action to recruit and retain more social care staff, there is a risk that the NHS recruitment drive will inadvertently exacerbate workforce shortages in social care.”
Nursing apprenticeships can also be used by nursing associates to become fully qualified registered nurses after an extra two years of training.
Nursing associate is a new, less-qualified role introduced on wards in 2019 to work alongside nurses.
Thirty-one-year-old Sophie Hurcombe, a second-year nursing degree apprentice from South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Trust, said: “I joined the trust as a healthcare assistant in 2015 and witnessed first-hand the fantastic opportunities and job satisfaction that my qualified nurse colleagues had.
“When I saw that the trust was advertising nursing apprenticeships, I knew that this would be an amazing opportunity to progress my career.
“As a more mature student, full-time university was not financially realistic for me, so being able to study alongside my role as a healthcare assistant has allowed me to develop my skills and confidence whilst earning a wage.”