What the new health secretary must do to fix the radiography workforce crisis

The SoR has compiled a list of the most pressing priorities for the incoming health secretary ahead of an anticipated meeting

Published: 15 November 2023 Government & NHS

The Society of Radiography has welcomed new secretary of state for health and social care, Victoria Atkins, and called for action on key initiatives to support the radiography workforce.

Earlier this week Steve Barclay, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care since October 2022, was replaced by Ms Atkins as part of a cabinet reshuffle, sparked by the sacking of Home Secretary Suella Braverman. 

Within the NHS, nine out of 10 patients are supported by a radiography professional, either through diagnostic services like X-rays, MRI and CT scans, or through therapeutic services - planning and delivering radiotherapy to cancer patients.

But the SoR has warned “too few are being recruited or retained.” As a result, a million patients are currently waiting to be seen by a radiographer, delaying vital diagnosis and treatment for months, while the average vacancy rate across the UK for radiographers is now at 12.7 per cent.

The SoR is seeking a meeting with Atkins to address four key items on its agenda:

1. Removing politics from the NHS

The health secretary role has changed five times since Matt Hancock left the post in June 2021, in a “short-termist panicked approach” that is “not benefitting the NHS.” The SoR emphasised the need to change direction and set a long-term path towards building a world-class, 21st-century NHS.

“This is the last opportunity for a general election,” it added.

2. Work with unions to address the workforce crisis

SoR members took a total of three days of strike action earlier this year, after voting overwhelmingly to reject the government’s pay offer of 5 per cent plus a non-consolidated lump sum for 2022-23. The union remains in a formal trade dispute with the health secretary, and with individual NHS trusts that directly employ members. 

The SoR said: “If Ms Atkins genuinely wants to find a solution to the current workforce crises afflicting the NHS, then she needs to talk and listen to the unions. Ministers and unions need to be working together in partnership.

“The government’s current workforce plan, announced on 30 June, is a plan for the future, which will not tackle the immediate shortage of radiography professionals or the risk that this poses for patients.”

3. Commit to pay restoration

The 2024-25 pay review should be used to commit the government to a minimum inflation-plus pay award every year until pay is restored to 2008 levels.

Further, the legal mechanism currently protecting NHS pension value should apply to the pay of those still working in the NHS – this would boost morale and improve recruitment and retention.

This year, the majority of university courses for diagnostic radiography had to enter clearing, because of a lack of students to fill their places. 

In 2021-22, most radiography courses reported that more than one in five (21 per cent) students dropped out. This will not change without serious commitment from the government to address pay and working conditions.

MP Will Quince, previous junior health secretary who left his role during the recent reshuffle, told the SoR the government could not afford to pay junior doctors or teachers more than 5 per cent. However, the pay deal offered to other public-sector workers on 14 July includes an offer of 6.5 per cent for teachers and 6 per cent for junior doctors. 

The SoR is willing to discuss a similar deal for radiographers.

4. Invest in people, not just tech 

While the SoR supports the government’s plan to open new community diagnostic centres (CDCs), an independent review for NHS England stated staffing these centres would require an additional 4,000 radiographers, 2,000 radiologists and 500 advanced practitioners.  

While £2.3 billion has been allocated for capital expenditure on the CDC programme, there has been no funding at all for additional staffing. 

“If Ms Atkins is serious about reducing NHS waiting lists, then she needs to invest in recruiting and retaining professionals to manage patient care,” the SoR said. “We look forward to discussing these points with Ms Atkins at her earliest convenience.”

The government could reduce waiting lists, save lives and save taxpayers’ money by implementing a modern workforce recruitment and retention plan. The measures set out above would help to reduce pressure on members to take on excessive overtime hours, and keep radiography professionals within the NHS.