NHS data don’t confirm Labour’s claim of 100 000 vacant posts in England

Authors: Nigel Hawkes 

Publication date:  28 Dec 2017

The NHS in England has more than 100 000 unfilled posts, claims a survey by the Labour Party. But the figures have been difficult to confirm, and the NHS trust with the highest number of vacancies lists a 10th the number of jobs on its website that the survey indicates.

Labour sent freedom of information requests to 82 trusts—just over a third of all hospital and community service trusts—asking for the number of vacancies on 31 March 2017, which totalled 35 993 unfilled full-time equivalent posts.

Extrapolated to the whole NHS in England, this implied a figure of more than 100 000, a 9% vacancy rate. A typical UK business has a vacancy rate of around 2.7%, accounted for by the time taken to recruit to new posts or to replace retiring staff.

The figures, described by Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, as “a growing crisis,” are consistent with a similar freedom of information survey carried out in February 2016 by the BBC and covering England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This found a vacancy rate of 9% among nursing posts and 7% among doctors.

Official NHS statistics do not contradict these figures but provide little information on whether numbers of vacancies in the NHS are rising.

NHS Digital publishes two measures: the number of jobs advertised on the NHS Jobs website and the vacancy rates recorded in the Electronic Staff Record.

The data from NHS Jobs, the main recruitment website for the NHS, include the number of advertisements placed on the site. In March 2017 just over 30 600 such advertisements were placed, up from around 26 400 in the same months in 2015 and 2016. This indicates that vacancies are rising but does not provide an actual number, because many advertisements, particularly for nurses, are aimed to recruit for more than one post, and NHS Digital has no means yet of counting jobs rather than advertisements.

The advertisement numbers have been published since February 2015, so no longer term comparisons are possible. The number placed per month has been roughly in the range 25 000 to 30 000 throughout the period.

In theory the Electronic Staff Record, used by almost all NHS trusts in England as a payroll and human resources system, should provide a more accurate count, because vacant posts can be recorded. But in fact it diverges widely from the advertisement numbers. NHS Digital found that in the six months from 1 April to 30 September 2016 a total of 172 051 posts had been advertised on NHS Jobs, but only 81 334 vacancies were recorded in the Electronic Staff Record.

NHS Digital explained this discrepancy by saying that different trusts had different policies and that it was not mandatory for trusts to use either NHS Jobs or the Electronic Staff Record. There were many different ways of defining a vacancy, it said, and it has set up a review group to decide on a consistent definition.

Labour’s analysis found that several major trusts were reporting more than 1000 vacant posts, with Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London coming top, at 1610 vacancies. Yet the trust’s website lists fewer than 150 jobs, 23 of them for doctors, including nine for consultants. The same nine consultant jobs are listed on NHS Jobs.

The trust was unable to shed any light on the big gap between the reported number of vacancies and recruitment advertisements.

Nigel Hawkes London

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: