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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a cup of tea and a chat with staff during an election campaign visit to West Cornwall Community hospital in Penzance, Cornwall. (Photo by Dan Kitwood / POOL / AFP)

Nurse numbers disputed during UK election campaign

Nurses are once again front and centre during a contentious UK election campaign. This time because of dubious promises made by the prime minister, Boris Johnson.

A key pledge from the Tory manifesto was the introduction of 50,000 extra nurses for the NHS. However, this promise fell apart under closer inspection. The numbers were found to include 18,500 nurses already employed by the NHS, but who the government said would normally leave the profession.

In an interview with the BBC, health secretary Matt Hancock struggled to explain his party’s claims, instead engaging in a semantic battle over the term “new nurses” versus “more nurses”.

“So, if you take 50,000, which is your big number, and you take away 18,500 who are already nurses – can you do the maths? How many do you have left that are more?” the interviewer asked.

“No. That are new,” Hancock replied. "So, we’re not saying 50,000 new nurses. We’re saying 50,000 more nurses."


Johnson and his Conservative Party have struggled on the health issue throughout his tenure as PM. On top of the numbers discrepancy, Johnson announced a return to the bursary system for student nurses, which should have been a positive going into the election.

However, some nurses have been angered by this and point out that it was the conservatives who scrapped the bursary in 2016 for the new tuition system that leaves nurses with upwards of £60,000 ($114,000) debt upon leaving university, and has seen applications to study nursing fall by 13,000 a year since.

This is said be one reason for the 43,000-nurse deficit in the UK. During a recent hospital visit, Johnson shared a tense exchange with nurses over a cup of tea, with one nurse asking Johnson if he has a “nurse tree” as well as a "money tree".

The leading union for nurses in the UK is unsure of the Tory promises.

Dame Professor Donna Kinnair, general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Today’s commitment to recruit and retain 50,000 more nursing staff above and beyond the existing students completing degrees is the right level of aspiration.

“However, we need more detail of how and from where these future professionals are going to be found," she said.

"Forcing would-be nurses to pay tuition fees has demonstrably failed in the last two years. With this announcement, Boris Johnson has not brought back the bursary – he is pledging to return one element of the package and keep the costly tuition fees in place.”

Elsewhere, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn claimed to have obtained government documents which prove that in preparing for Brexit, the conservatives are considering selling off parts of the NHS to private US companies.

“We’ve now got evidence that under Boris Johnson the NHS is on the table and is up for sale,” he said.


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