SoR supports NAO assessment of NHS Workforce Plan: ‘optimistic, uncertain’

The NAO has highlighted several weaknesses in the government’s Long-Term Workforce Plan for the NHS, prompting support from the Society

Published: 22 March 2024 Government & NHS

The SoR has reinforced statements made in the National Audit Office’s assessment of the NHS Long-Term Workforce Plan, namely that its overly optimistic and its predictions cannot be replicated.

The NHS Long-Term Workforce Plan (LTWP), released June 2023, is a report developed by NHS England (NHSE) which sets out the issues afflicting the service and a strategic direction for the long term, as well as actions to be taken locally, regionally and nationally in the short to medium term.

However, in a new report released by the National Audit Office (NAO) on 22 March, the plan’s statistics, methods and goals have been questioned.

Significant weaknesses

The report, titled 'NHS England’s modelling for the Long Term Workforce Plan,' found that improvements are needed in NHSE's modelling, which sets out projected staffing needs over the next 15 years. While this modelling is a “significant achievement and provides a foundation”, the NAO warned that it suffers from several weaknesses.

These include: a complex design; manual adjustments; optimistic future assumptions and limited public communication of their uncertainty; and modelling outputs that could not be fully replicated.

Dean Rogers, director of industrial strategy for the Society of Radiographers, said: “The Society of Radiographers has always said that we welcome a long-term plan for the NHS workforce. We have also said that there are major flaws in the long-term workforce plan that the government published in June last year. But we take no pleasure in seeing that the National Audit Office agrees with us.”

Targets, not assumptions

The NAO report further suggested that some of NHSE’s modelling assumptions “are more akin to targets, which will require policy changes and significant investment”.

Mr. Rogers added: “We agree: the workforce plan has always looked like a list of government aspirations, with no costings or explanations as to how it was going to deliver them. That’s not a plan – that’s just a list. Neither does it tackle the immediate shortage of radiography professionals – nor the risk this presents for patients.”

In the NHS, nine out of 10 patients are supported by a radiographer yet the average vacancy rate for radiography has risen to 13.4 per cent.  A recent survey of SoR members revealed that 82 per cent could only fill their departmental roster with regular overtime shifts, because of staff shortages. 

More than a million patients are currently waiting to see a radiographer. And one in five patients (20 per cent) is now waiting at least six weeks to be seen by a member of the radiography workforce.

Better-informed decision-making

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said: “It is good to see that NHS England has for the first time produced this modelling, but it now needs to build on this and address the weaknesses the NAO report identified so its long-term decisions about the NHS’s future workforce are better informed and we know what money will need to be spent on it.”

NHSE has “committed to improve the modelling as part of regular planned updates”, according to the NAO.

The LTWP estimates that the NHS’s 1.4m full-time equivalent (FTE) staff in 2021-22 will need to grow to between 2.3m and 2.4m FTE workers in 2036-37. 

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “The creation of the modelling that underpins the Long Term Workforce plan has been a significant undertaking. However, NHS England must strengthen its workforce modelling next time around to make better-informed decisions about the NHS’s future workforce.” 

'Close the gap'

Mr. Rogers continued: “Demand is continuing to rise faster than increased output. Recent pay awards have failed to address our key concerns, and so young people are reluctant to enter a career in radiography. 

“Unless we close the gap between supply of staff and the known rise in demand, waiting lists will continue to grow. The government needs a serious and credible workforce plan to tackle recruitment and retention in the radiography workforce. 

“We cannot afford to be optimistic in our projections for the future – and neither can the government. Our members deserve better. Our patients deserve better.”

To access the NAO report in full, click here.

To access the LTWP in full, click here.

(Image: izusek via GettyImages)