The introduction of language tests for European Union nurses has sparked a surge in applications from nurses who want to work in the UK ahead of the new rules coming in.
The Nursing and Midwifery Council, which assesses applications, said the increase had caused a backlog of more than 3,300 EU applications, which would take until May to process.
“[The NMC] couldn’t reach any conclusions to imply those [people who applied before the rule change] are people who potentially don’t have the communication skills required”
Concerns have also been raised that this could mean nurses with inadequate English language skills, who applied before the rule change, would be approved to work in the UK because the old system does not require a test.
Latest NMC council papers reveal that in just one month the number of applications to work in the UK from EU nurses almost tripled, rising from an average of 700 a month in 2015, to 1,977 in January.
This meant the nursing regulator was only able to complete 53% of all January’s international assessments within its target of 70 days since receipt.
The impact was also felt in February, where the regulator processed just 65% of international applications within its target timeframe.
Its aim is to complete 90% of applications within 70 days, which in previous months it had been able to achieve.
New rules for EU nurses to demonstrate English language skills were introduced on 18 January.
“[The backlog of applications] is more than anyone could have predicted but I don’t think that’s going to bring the NHS to a standstill”
The change brings regulations into line with those for non-EU applicants and means all nurses from abroad must now pass an International English Language Testing System exam, if they cannot prove they are proficient in using English.
At an NMC council meeting this week, director of registrations Tom Kirkbride said the regulator had planned for an increase in applications, but not to the extent that had been seen. He said it was expected to take until the middle of May to process the current 3,361 outstanding EU applications, all of which were submitted before the rule change and will not require a language test.
Council members expressed concerns this meant EU nurses applying before the rule change were likely to be those who would not have passed the language test, and yet may now be able to practise in the UK.
In response, NMC interim chief operating officer Alison Sansome said: “This is an issue we do need to manage every time we change our rules.
“Generally, people who are already in the process in some way at the point of the change, we are obliged to take under the rules under which they applied,” she said.
Speaking to Nursing Times later, NMC chief executive Jackie Smith said it was “human nature” for people to apply before a change in rules, and that the regulator “couldn’t reach any conclusions to imply those are people who potentially don’t have the communication skills required”.
She stressed it was still an employer responsibility to test for language and communication skills in nurse applicants.
When asked if the backlog of applications could cause problems for employers looking to international recruitment to fill gaps in the nurse workforce, Ms Smith said it would not bring the health service to a “standstill”.
“I don’t think it’s [the backlog] a problem. We work very closely with NHS employers and organisations about the flow of workforce. If they are doing recruitment from overseas, they normally tell us if they are going out to the Philippines or India to get a set number, that is proper planning,” she said.
“There are 3,300 applications there and they need to be properly assessed against our requirements. That is more than anyone could have predicted, but I don’t think that’s going to bring the NHS to a standstill,” she said.