The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said that since the coalition came to power in May 2010, the NHS workforce in England had decreased by 28,500 posts, and a further 32,700 jobs are at risk.
Between May 2010 and July this year, the number of qualified nurses working for the health service reduced by more than 6,000.
In a stark warning to Ministers, RCN said the ageing population and more people living with long-term conditions meant that demand for services continued to rise, and the nation’s healthcare could end up “stranded in a perfect storm”.
A report for the organisation’s Frontline First campaign said: “The RCN believes that the NHS is sleepwalking into a nursing crisis in England that is drawing closer as the size of the cuts increase.
“If the Government continues on its current path, it will find itself stranded in a perfect storm of an ageing population with increasing healthcare demands, but without the adequate nursing workforce to deal with it.”
The RCN said while NHS trusts locally make the decisions about staffing levels, national oversight about the reduction in staff numbers was missing.
The organisation is calling on Ministers to prevent NHS trusts from “continuing with this damaging agenda of cuts” that “impact on patient care”.
RCN policy head Howard Catton said: “The cumulative effect of those local decisions means that we are heading towards a crisis as far as the supply of nursing is concerned which will have an impact on patient care.
“There has to be national oversight to make sure that we are getting the right numbers of healthcare professionals across the system.
“If attention isn’t paid to this warning from us we are very, very concerned about what the impact on care will be.”
Despite the warnings, Health Minister Dan Poulter insisted NHS performance was “strong”.
“To say that the NHS is in crisis is scaremongering and doesn’t reflect reality,” he said. “Waiting times and infection rates are at record low levels. This Government fully supports the NHS and will put an extra £12.5bn into the health services by 2015.
“But at the same time, the health service is changing – average lengths of stay in hospitals are about one third shorter than they were 10 years ago, and there is more surgery where patients don’t have to stay overnight on a ward.
“The NHS workforce is changing to reflect this and the NHS workforce of tomorrow will be different to what it is today. But changes must be decided at a local level, based on evidence that they will improve patient care.”
RCN chief executive and general secretary Dr Peter Carter said: “Nurses are telling us that they do not have enough staff to deliver good quality care. Demand for services is continuing to rise. However, staffing levels are being slashed.
“The £3bn that the Treasury has clawed back from the NHS in the last two years should be reinvested back into vital jobs and services that would ultimately improve patient care.”
The RCN added that the reduction in staff numbers has been magnified by the reduction of nursing places at universities in England.
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said: “Whilst the Coalition wastes billions on back-office restructuring, the front-line of the NHS is taking a battering.
“Since David Cameron walked through the door of 10 Downing Street, over six thousand nursing posts have been lost. At the same time, he has spent £1bn on redundancy packages for managers, six-figure pay-outs to managers and P45s to nurses – what clearer illustration could there be of a Government with its priorities completely wrong.”