The health secretary has told NHS England, the Care Quality Commission, and other national agencies to implement a freeze on almost all recruitment.
Steve Barclay has told arm’s-length bodies to institute a “complete recruitment pause, subject to a small number of exceptions”.
NHSE told HSJ it has already implemented such a process and declined to comment further.
But a letter to all arm’s-length bodies from the Department of Health and Social Care on Monday said Mr Barclay’s team would be arranging meetings with them this week, as he wants to “understand each organisation’s plans” in respect of recruitment.
NHSE has a number of senior roles to fill, and recently advertised publicly for a deputy chief operating officer and national director of urgent and emergency care.
It recently appointed a new chief strategy officer, Chris Hopson, from outside the organisation, although the new national director for primary care and community services, Amanda Doyle, was recruited from one of NHSE’s regional teams, with her old post consolidated with a neighbouring region.
Chief people officer Prerana Issar, who departed earlier this year, was effectively replaced internally by Navina Evans, while Nikki Kanani was another internal appointment to director for clinical integration. It is unclear whether NHSE will advertise to replace Blake Dark as national commercial director.
The CQC currently has some key positions being filled on an interim basis, including its chief operating officer and chief inspector of primary medical services.
A spokeswoman said: “We are awaiting further discussions with DHSC following their correspondence. We already have strict controls in place around recruitment, particularly since beginning our transformation programme, which is designed to improve the way we work and ensure we are as effective as possible.”
The troubled NHS Blood and Transplant is currently led by an interim CEO, while other affected agencies include the National Institute of Clinical Excellence and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
The letter from the DHSC said: “The department already has plans in place to substantially reduce in size over the coming three years but has now, in addition, instituted a complete recruitment pause, subject to a small number of exceptions, signed off at director general level, where a vacancy meets a set of strict criteria and cannot be resourced internally due to an absence of the relevant skill set.
“The secretary of state’s expectation is that the entire health family [of ALBs] follow a similar approach and would like to understand each organisation’s plans in this respect.
“We will arrange discussions over the coming week to ensure we have a full picture of those plans and to work with you on options for how we can best manage movement across the group to support all of our existing staff.”
The letter is signed by Andy Brittain, DHSC’s director general finance, and commercial director Melinda Johnson.
HSJ reported yesterday that a DHSC efficiency review, headed by former Treasury minister Lord Agnew, was looking at five areas, including paybill and headcount, as well as long-term reform options.
NHSE has already committed to staff cuts of up to 40 per cent as it merges with NHS Digital and Health Education England. But a DHSC source said officials would be working with them “to see if they can go further” to free up more resources for frontline care.
An NHSE spokesperson said: “NHS England, Health Education England and NHS Digital are already following the recruitment process outlined in the letter. Details are in line with plans previously announced.”HSJ asked whether Mr Dark’s role would be advertised publicly in the coming months but did not receive a response.
Danny Mortimer, NHS Employers chief executive and NHS Confederation deputy chief executive, said: “Health leaders will be encouraged that the government is exploring ways to release resource from itself and its arm’s-length bodies for local services.”
Nora Colton of the UCL Global Business School for Health said the policy needed to be integrated with a wider workforce strategy.
She said: “When you have a freeze, you often get people leaving because they’re anticipating that there may be further cuts, and freezes can also mean that critical roles are not replaced due to processing and timing. You’re no longer able to be agile, flexible, and the approval process becomes very laborious.
“So actually, you end up adding more administrative layers and creating all sorts of bottlenecks. In an organisation that’s important such as the CQC, in terms of ensuring quality in an agency, particularly at this time, I don’t think that we’d want that compromised in any way.”