The ongoing uncertainty over Brexit is likely to hit the health service’s pipeline of European Union nursing staff, potentially exacerbating the current shortage of nurses, a report has warned.
The report, on the UK labour market for nurses, highlighted the health service’s heavily reliance on countries like Spain, Portugal and Ireland, with EU staff comprising 4.5% of the nursing workforce.
“The recruitment pipeline from the EU is likely to be hit hard”
But uncertainty over the status of EU workers in the UK could lead to European nurses returning home and far fewer able to work here, warned the report by the Institute for Employment Studies.
The report, published today, provides a gloomy overall picture of the scale of challenges facing the NHS nursing workforce, with one in three nurses due to retire in the next 10 years and a lack of “home-grown” nurses to fill the impending gap.
It was written for the Migration Advisory Committee, which provides the government with recommendations on professions that should be on the shortage occupation list and, therefore, subject to reduced immigration controls.
As reported by Nursing Times, the MAC recommended last year that the government grant up to 15,000 visas over the next three years to international nurses from outside the EU in order to ease the current shortage.
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The new report recommended that the government must go further and ensure the UK had a domestic supply of nurses that can meet the future healthcare demands placed on the NHS.
It concluded that to achieve this would require an adequate and sustained investment in workforce planning on the part of the government.
The study highlighted the key role of international and EU nurses in easing the pressures on the nursing workforce, as together they make up around 12% of nurses in the UK.
The researchers mapped trust recruitment of international nurses, finding that reliance on the overseas workforce was greatest in London and the South East.
They also found that the composition of the overseas nursing workforce had shifted dramatically in recent years – EU nurses were now increasingly prevalent, which reflected tighter immigration rules.
The report, which was written before the EU referendum, identified three key causes of the current nursing shortage:
- The government had not funded enough student nursing places
- The nursing workforce was ageing and there were not enough nurses entering the system to fill the gap or offset the loss of skills and experience that will take occur when a third of nurses reach retirement age in the next 10 years
- Since the Francis Report, safe staffing levels and increasing healthcare demands on NHS services have pushed up the demand for nurses, while at the same time trusts have faced greater financial difficulties that have made the recruitment of nurses more challenging
The report’s lead author, Dr Rachel Marangozov, said: “With one in three nurses due to retire in the next 10 years, there is now an urgent question for the government around who will replace them.
“With the uncertainty around Brexit, the recruitment pipeline from the EU is likely to be hit hard, and even the additional 15,000 visas for international nurses recommended by the MAC will not be sufficient to plug this gap in the workforce,” she said.
Danny Mortimer cut out masthead
“The government needs to act now to ensure that the UK has a domestic supply of nurses to fill these future posts,” she said. “This will require adequate and sustained investment in workforce planning.”
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, welcomed the findings and message in the report.
“There are significant concerns that the shortage of nurses in the UK will not be helped by the uncertainty felt by EU staff,” he said, adding: “It is clear that the ongoing shortage of nurses is not a short-term issue.
“The report identifies very clearly the complex factors which have led to the shortage of nursing, not least the need for more effective service planning to drive our workforce plans,” he said.
“Staff from EU countries who work in the UK must be given reassurance over their future”
Mr Mortimer said he hoped similar reports would be published about other sectors affected by the shortage occupation list to help form a “post-Brexit approach to skilled migrants entering the UK”.
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing said the institute’s report made “sobering reading” and warned of a major nursing shortage if action was not taken.
“Thanks to years of short-term thinking, the UK is completely unprepared to deal with the challenges posed by an ageing workforce, increasing demand, and now the uncertainty caused by leaving the European Union,” said RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies.
“In the near future, this uncertainty threatens the international recruitment which the NHS will rely on for many years to come,” she added.
“Staff from EU countries who work in the UK must be given reassurance over their future,” she said. “This will make longer term workforce planning easier, but more importantly it is the only fair and moral way to treat staff who are making a vital contribution to the UK’s health service.”