A HEALTH union has claimed that plans to introduce more nursing support staff onto the county’s hospital wards will undermine patient care.

Unison representatives said the NHS roll out of the new nursing associates roles - intended to address a skills gap between health and care assistants and registered nurses - amounted to a ‘de-skilling operation’ in frontline health services.

Last month Oxford University Hospitals revealed plans to bring in more support roles, including nursing associates, to help plug frontline staffing gaps amid a chronic nursing shortage at the trust.

The trust said the move would provide valuable support to help nurses and other clinical staff prioritise patient care.

However communications officer for Oxfordshire UNISON Health branch Ian McKendrick said the move would result in fewer fully qualified nurses on hand to provide care for patients, and was being used as a means for health bosses to slash costs by bringing down agency bills.

He said: “This won’t solve the national shortage of nurses, but if money is available to train nursing associates, why isn’t money being made available to fully train them to the current minimum standard required to be a registered nurse?

"We believe this is about slashing the wage bill to try to get nurses on the cheap, which puts patients at risk."

He also claimed money to employ nurses was instead being used to train the new band 4 nursing associates instead, which he said would impact on the numbers of fully trained nurses employed in hospitals.

Unison bosses are now calling on hospital chiefs to ensure nursing associates are not used in place of fully qualified nurses but instead in place of band 3 posts to drive the overall skill level up and 'not drive it down'.

Mr McKendrick added: "One solution to this mess is for nursing associates to be immediately enrolled in paid training to turn them into fully trained nurses.

"This way we have the numbers of fully trained nurses we need and skill levels and patient care in Oxfordshire’s hospitals is protected."

Oxford University Hospitals chief nurse, Sam Foster said in a statement in October: "Our support staff are highly valued in our organisation. They provide a range of skills and administrative and auxiliary support that frees up clinical colleagues to provide clinical care for our patients."