Whichever party is elected next month, it must take immediate action to increase the number of nurses, a report has warned.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said that while the Coalition Government claims to have increased the number of posts during the past five years, t here are actually fewer now than in 2010 if midwives, health visitors and school nurses are not included.
The college said a lack of political will to train nurses means that while 50,000 people applied to become nurses last year, there were only 21,000 places - meaning that there is no shortage of people wanting to do the job.
The report also draws attention to the fact that t he community nursing workforce has been cut by more than 3,300, despite NHS plans to move care from hospitals to the community.
It said the headcount figure for nurses fell from 317,370 in May 2010 to 315,525 in December 2014, meaning there are 1,845 fewer qualified nurses in the workforce.
It described this was "remarkable" given the continued increase in demand for the NHS.
From May 2010 to December 2014 there has been a 28% reduction in the number of specialist district nurses, a loss of 2,168 posts across England.
It said a significant contributing factor to the shortage of nurses in England are the cuts the Coalition Government made to student nursing commissions in 2010, falling by 13.5% by 2012 - a reduction of 3,375 places.
The report said that as it takes three years for student nurses to qualify, these cuts are impacting on the supply of nurses right now.
A reliance on using agency nurses means that the NHS would have spent an estimated £980 million on them by the end of the 2014/15 financial year, the college said.
It said that as with GPs, the nursing workforce is ageing, with around 45% being over 45.
Dr Peter Carter, chief executive & general secretary of the RCN, said: "We warned that cutting the workforce numbers to fund the NHS reorganisation and to find the efficiency savings was the wrong course to take.
"The cuts were so severe that we are only just catching up with where we were five years ago. Many areas, like district nursing and mental health, are even worse off.
"While the health service has spent the last five years running on the spot, demand has continued to increase. Whoever forms the next Government must learn from this report and take immediate action to grow the nursing workforce, and ensure it can keep up with demand with a sustainable and long-term plan.
"Unlike many problems facing the health service, the solution to the nursing workforce is very simple, and is a matter of political will. With more people wanting to nurse than ever, the next Government has the power to increase training places and expand the supply of nurses. If it does not, it will be failing a generation of patients.
"As the election approaches there will be a lot of promises, and many will be forgotten. But the next government can rest assured that it will be judged in five years' time on whether we have a properly funded health service which is fit for the 21st Century."