UK eyes permanent medic ‘reserve force’ to bolster NHS

The British government is exploring plans to build a permanent reserve force of medics to support the NHS, following the success of its call for retired clinicians to return to the frontline of the coronavirus crisis.

Sarah Neville and Laura Hughes in London yesterday 

More than 30,000 retired doctors and nurses signed up to help during the Covid-19 emergency, in what health leaders described as “the biggest recruitment drive the NHS has ever seen”.

One person familiar with the initiative, which has the backing of Downing Street and the health department, likened the potential new force to the Army reserve, in which thousands are trained to serve alongside regular troops if and when required.

Clinical staff would similarly keep skills up to date through regular deployments, the person said.

Government officials confirmed ministers were considering whether to establish a permanent reservist force of medical staff after the pandemic. “We all think it’s a really sensible idea”, said one. “It’s definitely being discussed and considered as it makes sense.” 

Another added that keeping the huge numbers of NHS volunteers on as a permanent resource for the “foreseeable future” could “ensure capacity built up within the NHS is maintained”. 

The NHS is beset by workforce shortages, which are set to worsen as it attempts to resume normal services that were put on hold during the peak of the pandemic.

The NHS told the FT that “around 10,000” former staff had now returned to the health service. Alongside existing staff and 27,000 student doctors, nurses and allied health professionals, they had played “a significant role in ensuring that everyone who has needed care over the last two months has been able to receive it”, it added.

Calculations published by the Health Foundation, a charity, late last year suggested that without “concerted policy action and dedicated investment”, NHS staff shortages could grow to up to 200,000 by 2023/24, and at least 250,000 by 2030.

Nursing remained the key area of shortage, it noted, with more than 40,000 vacancies, a figure that could double by 2023/24.

In the March budget, the government confirmed a general election commitment to recruit 50,000 more nurses and deliver 50m additional GP appointments over the lifetime of the parliament.

However, the proposal to invite retirees to become a more established part of the workforce may meet scepticism from some volunteers, who have found the NHS slow to call on their services.

With the NHS now coming through the first peak of the virus, “local leaders are developing plans to safely bring back services and meet delayed demand for care and treatment, meaning that this contribution will remain necessary”. Employers had therefore been asked “to fast-track employment offers, induction and any necessary top-up training for all remaining prospective ‘returners’ over the next two weeks”, the NHS added.