Details have emerged that health service managers in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West are drawing up a local health plan that will see qualified nurses replaced with cheaper unqualified staff. The move throws new light on the government’s recent announcement of 2,000 new nursing staff.

Intended to save more than £30 million over four years by using more “generic support workers” and healthcare assistants, while cutting back on qualified nurses, the plans by Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West are just one of 44 local plans being drawn up across the country.

A report published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), has linked increased reliance on nursing assistants to a sharp rise in the risk of patient death. The study, which tracked almost 300,000 patients from 32 NHS hospital trusts in England, as well as hospitals across Europe, found that for every 25 patients, substituting just one qualified nurse for a lower-qualified member of staff was associated with a 21 per cent increase in the risk of patient mortality.

Concerns have been heightened following the government’s proposed introduction of ‘nursing associates’ who will apparently be given some jobs currently only done by registered nurses, including administering controlled drugs and carrying out some invasive procedures.

Gwen Kirby-Dent, senior clinical negligence solicitor at Thompsons Solicitors, said: “We all know that the NHS is under severe pressure financially and we know that the NHS would grind to a halt were it not for the sterling work of unqualified staff but they are no replacement – unless properly trained and remunerated - for qualified nursing staff. That is nursing on the cheap cheating the patient and risking their health.

“The BMJ research showed how important qualified nurses are within a hospital setting, and makes clear as well that England is falling behind other countries in terms of the ratio of qualified nurses to other staff. The government needs to open about its direction of travel not play with words and titles which ultimately only plays with patients’ lives and quality of care.”