A shortage of specialist learning disability nurses could be “putting lives at risk”, leading nurses have warned.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said that the number of learning disability nurses in England has risen by just 22 in the last three years.

A report from the RCN warns that across all nursing roles there is a “staffing crisis” in the UK which will result in “unsafe staffing levels, impacting on patients’ safety”.

Learning disability nursing represents a “significantly at-risk section of the nursing workforce”, the report adds.

The authors warned that ignoring the role of learning disability nurses is “discrimination by proxy”.

The RCN said that specialist care for people with learning disabilities can “transform their lives”.

It highlighted that in 2018, the number of learning disability nurses working in hospital and community health services in England hit a record low – just 3,192.

Since then, that number has risen to 3,214 – a rise of just 22 full-time equivalent posts, the RCN added.

But the RCN said a large proportion of learning disability nurses work outside the NHS and therefore are not counted – indeed some 17,000 learning disability specialist nurses are registered to work in the UK.

The nursing union has called for the Government to redouble efforts to address the numbers of people in the profession.

It is also calling for more detailed analysis of the existing workforce.

Meanwhile, the Government should establish a learning disabilities minister or commissioner in each of the four nations to protect the care and rights of patients with learning disabilities, the RCN added.

Jonathan Beebee, professional lead for learning disability nursing at the Royal College of Nursing and one of the authors of the report, said: “The shortage of nursing staff could be putting the lives of people with learning disabilities at risk.

“It’s scandalous that in this day and age people with learning disabilities are still dying on average 25 years sooner than the general population. Specialist care can transform their lives.

“Investment is much needed to encourage people to train as a nurse and take the career path into learning disability nursing.

“Learning disability nursing is incredibly rewarding but we struggle to recruit, and this is partly due to lack of recognition and identity for what learning disability nurses offer. The RCN has a key role to play in encouraging more students and newly qualified nurses to specialise in this area.”