Fact Check: are there 6,500 more doctors and 15,000 more nurses since Jeremy Hunt became health secretary?

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt on a hospital visit in 2014. Joe Giddens/PA Archive

Since I’ve been health secretary we’ve got 6,500 more doctors, we’ve got 15,000 more nurses.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on May 7.

During his interview on the Andrew Marr show on May 7 Jeremy Hunt claimed that, since he became secretary of state for health in September 2012, 6,500 more doctors and 15,000 more nurses are now working for the NHS.

While the Conservatives did not respond to a request for comment on the figures, official NHS figures bear out Hunt’s claim.

In August 2012, the month before Hunt took office, there were 106,689 hospital doctors and 304,476 nurses and health visitors working for the NHS. The most recent figures, for January 2017, show that 113,111 hospital doctors are working for the NHS, an increase of 6,422 – just under 6,500. The number of nurses and health visitors now stands at 319,876, an increase of 15,400. So Hunt can rightly claim that there are more doctors and nurses working for the NHS since he has been in his post.

Though factually correct, these figures paint a rosy picture of the employment situation in the NHS in two ways. First, the number of staff working in the NHS varies month-by-month, peaking during the winter months and at its lowest point in August. So Hunt’s August to January comparison gives the most generous impression of the rise in employment. It would be fairer to compare numbers for the same month. This makes little difference for the rise in the number of doctors, but matters a lot for nurses. By comparing January 2012 to January 2017, the NHS has only 5,322 more nurses.

Second, while staff numbers have risen, they haven’t risen fast enough to cope with the increase in demand for NHS care. The NHS Pay Review Body estimated that, in 2015, the NHS was already short of almost 30,000 nurses. The shortfall is likely to get worse, particularly if the next government continues to restrain nursing pay growth to 1% a year and because some NHS staff from other European Union countries already appear to be returning home as a consequence of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

Does Hunt have a plan to address this increasing shortfall? Neither the Public Accounts Committee nor the House of Lords Select Committee think so, having harshly criticised the NHS for its poor workforce planning, particularly given the government’s plans for a seven-day NHS and in the light of Brexit.

The NHS cannot cope with the pressures it faces simply by employing a few more doctors and nurses. Instead it needs to train and retain enough staff to meet current and future demands. The evidence suggests it isn’t doing so.

Verdict

Jeremy Hunt’s claim about the increase in the number of doctors and nurses is true – but the increase still leaves the NHS short staffed.

Review

Roger Watson, professor of nursing, University of Hull

This fact check is very fair in that it acknowledges the truth in Jeremy Hunt’s claims but also takes into account some other factors that have a well-known impact on NHS staff numbers. Nursing employment fluctuates seasonally and, as researchers such as Jim Buchan have emphasised, the NHS workforce goes frequently from “boom to bust”. Whatever the numbers employed, the NHS remains short of nurses by any reckoning and – although this is not picked up in the fact check – the shortages are not spread evenly across the UK. Despite the hope that EU nationals will be given the right to remain in the UK after Brexit, the effect that leaving the EU will have on the nursing workforce is unknown and unlikely to be positive.