How might the election help grow the physio workforce?

In our continuing series of pre-election blogs, Rachel Newton, CSP head of policy, examines how the two main parties are pledging to address NHS workforce shortages.


Male physio examines arm of patient

CSP members regularly report staff shortages across all sectors of the workforce.

There has been substantial growth in new graduate numbers in recent years, but problems recruiting – and crucially in the NHS, retaining – staff persist.

In patient-facing roles, this impairs their ability to provide high-quality care during a time when demand is surging due to a range of factors, including the growing numbers of people living with at least one health condition.

Elsewhere, it is having an impact on areas of the profession such as education, storing up further problems for the future.

So, what are the main two parties offering?

Tackling workforce shortages

The Labour Party has promised ‘the biggest expansion of staff in the history of the NHS’, paid for out of the additional £1.3 billion funding it has committed to for the NHS.

Labour has also mooted loan forgiveness for new graduates to incentivise recruitment and retention to the NHS.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives would point to the publication last year of the NHS Long-Term Workforce Plan, which included growth of physiotherapy posts among its aims but we felt lacked ambition.

Whoever wins, they can expect to be held to account for their promises – not only by the CSP and the rest of the health sector, but by the general public, who are dissatisfied with NHS services and place the blame on insufficient funding and lack of staff. (British Social Attitudes Survey 2023)

For our part, we’re clear on how the next government should grow the physiotherapy workforce, focusing both on recruitment and retention.

There are record numbers of physio graduates and potential for further expansion as demand for training places outstrips places and physio assistants in the profession are well established as highly valued and core to the workforce

Maintaining the existing distribution of physios across all sectors, this level of growth allows an increase for the NHS of 12k physiotherapy posts and 6k rehab assistants, in the next five years.

It would also mean vital numbers of new staff in other parts of the health system, including the private sector and education where there is also significant need.

Increasing recruitment and retention 

So we have the potential to grow the numbers of people coming into the profession, but it is essential for the next government to also focus on those already working in physiotherapy, particularly in the NHS.

We must reduce the exodus of physiotherapy staff leaving the NHS each year, demotivated and burnt out by the inability to deliver the quality of care that they went into the profession to provide people.

The rate at which physios leave the NHS is the same as for nursing, but physios are far more likely to leave early on in their careers.

Increasing the numbers of staff will in itself help – it is telling that only 27 per cent of physios in the NHS say that they have sufficient staff in their services to do their job properly - a lower percentage than NHS staff as a whole.  

But so too will career progression and fair pay, both of which our members regularly cite as reasons for leaving the NHS.

In practice, this means an increase in the number of apprenticeships at all levels (and for support workers as well as physiotherapists), funding for CPD and more advanced practice roles, not just in primary care but across the NHS.

It will also require better inductions and ongoing support for internationally-recruited physiotherapists.

Across all these aspects, the government and employers of NHS physios have a lot to learn from the independent sector, where many companies have developed exemplary schemes to train, develop and retain their physio staff

Whatever the result on July 4, the next government faces a massive challenge in fixing the government, but growing the physiotherapy workforce will clearly be part of the solution.

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