PATIENT care is being put at risk by a decline in the number of senior North-East nurses, union leaders have warned.

According to the Royal College Of Nursing (RCN), the number of Band 8 nurses dropped by 87 between April 2010 and September 2013.

Band 8 nurses are usually the most senior nurses, with the grade often including ward sisters and community matrons.

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The union claimed in its Frontline First report that areas such as mental health and community nursing were suffering the most.

The RCN pointed out that in the Mid Staffordshire Public Inquiry report, Robert Francis highlighted the importance of having ward sisters who were able to properly manage their wards and other nursing staff.

The union said it was concerned that the decline had taken place at a time of unprecedented demand for health services across the region.

Glenn Turp, RCN Northern regional director, said it was a false economy to replace senior nurses with more junior staff.

“Yes, we need sufficient nurses across all grades, but we also need to keep those senior nurses with the right skills and experience.

“This data shows that too many NHS trusts see removing or downgrading senior nurses as a quick way to save money, losing specialist knowledge and leadership skills.

“For example, a ward sister typically has many years of experience and technical skill, as well as being crucial in developing more junior nurses. These skills are not disposable - there is a considerable effect on patient care.”

The RCN said it was also concerned at the growing practice of forcing senior staff to accept lower pay grades.

In response to the report, Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter said the Francis report was clear that it was vital to have nurses at all levels throughout the NHS.

“The reality is that there are over 4,500 more nurses on the wards than there were in May 2010, and it is for NHS hospitals to decide how many nurses are needed on each ward.

“We know clinical leadership by healthcare professionals matters - that’s why we’re investing £40 million in leadership training for ward sisters, senior nurses and midwives to create a new generation of leaders in our nursing workforce.”