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Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has said 10% of hospitals are understaffed and the NHS was engulfed in chaos. He said:
A new chief inspector of hospitals would be empowered to take action if hospitals are found to be compromising patient care with insufficient staffing, the Government has said.
Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter said hospitals were responsible for their own levels of staff numbers.
The survey by Nursing Standard and the Sunday Mirror also found that almost half of nurses had seen patients suffer as a result of services being cut.
But 57.5% of nurses said they were still proud to work for the NHS.
Speaking on behalf of Safe and Sound, the Safe Staffing Alliance, Professor Elizabeth Robb, chief executive of the Florence Nightingale Foundation, said nursing leaders were united in standing up for patient safety.
Hospital units with worse staffing levels could expect more excess deaths, nursing leaders said.
A national nursing survey found that wards are run with one registered nurse to eight patients or more approximately 40% of the time.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of The Patients Association, pointed out that in the latest Care Quality Commission inpatient survey (CQC 2012) staffing levels were a key issue raised by patients.
Patients said they thought all staff, and in particular nurses, were overworked.A frequent comment was that staff were caring but that they did not have enough time for you.
The fact is without adequate staffing levels, overstretched nurses are not able to give patients the care they need.
Patient care is unsafe on wards where each registered nurse is regularly looking after more than eight patients, according to nursing leaders.
Safe and Sound, the Safe Staffing Alliance, made up of senior expert nurses, says the 1:8 figure is based on hard evidence and they have issued new recommendations that under no circumstances should staffing be allowed to fall below that level.
A study by researchers at Southampton University, Kings College London and the National Nursing Research Unit found that hospitals with eight patients per registered nurse (during the day time on general acute wards) would see around 20 extra deaths a year more than better staffed hospitals.