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Private provider says its ‘robust nursing pipeline’ can benefit NHS

Published on: 4 Aug 2022

A large private provider says it is finding it harder than ever to fill its staffing vacancies, but is optimistic that its investment in nursing apprenticeships and overseas recruitment can help expand NHS-commissioned capacity.

In an interview with HSJ, Shelley Thomas, group HR director for Spire Healthcare, said the company is facing the same staffing difficulties as NHS providers.

She said: “We’re all feeling the same things at the moment… high sickness absence, high holidays, teams that are worn out. We’re all… experiencing the same from a workforce perspective.”

However, she said Spire is “working harder than ever” to fill vacancies, and now has a “really robust pipeline” of apprentices and oversees recruits.

Despite the waiting list backlogs which have ballooned since the pandemic began, and a £10bn framework in place for the NHS to utilise private sector capacity, analysis suggests NHS activity undertaken by private hospitals has been below pre-covid levels in almost all specialities.

Ms Thomas suggested the staffing difficulties had been a factor in that, but acknowledged there were more conversations to be had locally about how the private sector could undertake more activity.

She said the pandemic was a “huge catalyst for stronger working partnerships” between the NHS and the private sector and that relationships are “stronger than they’ve ever been”.

She stressed expanding capacity in both sectors was partly about enabling “a more flexible way of working”.

“Traditional approaches to workforce planning don’t always work… that whole economy really is born out of people who just want to be able to work flexibly, and feel that the only way that they can do that is by going on to agency or bank.”

Ms Thomas – who is also a non-executive director at East Cheshire Trust – pointed towards Spire’s nursing apprenticeship scheme and said the private provider always aims to spend the entirety of its apprenticeship levy.

There has long been criticism from NHS trusts about the lack of flexibility offered by the government’s apprentice scheme, resulting in much of the funding being left unspent.

However, Ms Thomas said there are opportunities for NHS trusts to subcontract some of their levy away to other organisations “to do their learning for them”.

She said: “There’s got to be a way of facilitating education in a more seamless way by working together. I think finding a way to do that is the key to filling in all of these clinical vacancies.”

Spire’s nursing apprenticeship programme, which it runs in partnership with the University of Sunderland, is thought to be the largest run by a private provider. Ms Thomas said “a lot of [the apprentices] will choose to go in the NHS with our blessing. And hopefully, they’ll come back to us in a few years’ time.”

She also said the company would be keen to be more involved in medical training, after a formal arrangement was made in 2020, for the first time, to enable NHS medical trainees to complete some of their training in the private sector. This programme was criticised by some, however, who said Spire and other providers had made it difficult to access the opportunities.

Ms Thomas said: “It’s not about being parochial, it’s about doing the right thing. We could certainly do more.”