The number of nurses and midwives registered to work in the UK has increased by almost 4,000 in the past year, latest figures reveal.
The rise in workforce was largely the result of fewer staff leaving the register, bolstered by more international nurses joining from outside Europe, rather than an increase in newly qualifieds joining it, noted those analysing the data.
“Despite the overall increase in numbers it remains difficult to predict what will happen in the coming years”
The composition of the register has also seen a rise in staff from the UK and countries outside the European Economic Area (EEA), according to the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
However, in contrast, the new NMC data, released today, shows a further decline in EEA registrants in the wake of the European Union referendum.
At the end of September, there were 693,618 registered nurses and midwives in the UK – a jump from 689,738 in the same month last year.
Health leaders warned that the rise, while welcome, was still “woefully short” of what was needed to cope with demand. There are 41,722 vacant nursing posts in the NHS in England alone.
They also raised concerns about progress stagnating in the future due to the drop in applications to study nursing and midwifery after the government scrapped bursaries in England.
“It is certainly encouraging to see fewer domestic nurses leaving the NMC’s register in the last year”
The figures shows the number of British nurses and midwives on the NMC register increased from 585,796 in September 2017 to 589,253 in the same month this year.
This was driven by a 16% fall in the number of UK staff choosing to leave their jobs, suggesting national efforts to improve retention are working. Meanwhile, 8% fewer Britons joined the NMC register in the 12 months to September 2018 compared to the previous year.
The data also reveals a worrying picture for the learning disability nurse workforce, which has fallen year-on-year since 2013 to hit a low of 17,142.
The number of nurses and midwives from EU countries has plummeted 13% since 2016 – the year of the referendum.
Just this week, a new report into the impact of Brexit on the health workforce warned that the nurse shortfall could hit 51,000 by the end of the transition period in 2021.
In September 2016, 38,992 EU nurses and midwives were registered to work in the UK. This fell to 36,259 in 2017 and dropped again in 33,874 this year.
At the same time, registrations by nurses and midwives from outside the EEA has hit 70,491 – the highest level since the NMC data set began in 2013.
“The increase in nurses and midwives joining is woefully short of what’s needed”
The latest shows the number of non-EEA overseas nurses and midwives registering to work in the UK for the first time almost doubled between 2017-18, compared to 2016-17, from 2,472 to 4,196.
Sue Killen, interim chief executive and registrar of the NMC, said the figures “paint an improving picture”.
“Despite the overall increase in numbers it remains difficult to predict what will happen in the coming years,” she said. “That’s because it’s unlikely that we’ve seen the full impact of the decision in 2017 to remove the bursary for students.
“It also remains essential that there is proper investment in the continuing professional development of nurses and midwives if we are to keep hold of the health and care sector’s most vital asset,” she added.
Stephanie Aiken, deputy director of nursing at the Royal College of Nursing, warned that the overall positive headline of an increase in the workforce risked “masking severe instability”.
She highlighted that the number of newly qualified domestic nurses was falling, and that European workers were leaving to amid “post-Brexit uncertainty”.
Fears raised over deep cuts to CPD funding for nursing staff
“It is certainly encouraging to see fewer domestic nurses leaving the NMC’s register in the last year,” she said. “But the main increase overall was international nurses as employers look further afield to fill staffing gaps.
“It is imperative that the nursing workforce in the UK grows sustainably with tens of thousands more newly-trained staff joining, rather than a reliance on an ageing workforce choosing not to leave,” she said.
Ms Aiken added that the fall in the number of nursing students “could mean fewer UK nurses in future”.
“The government’s hope of increasing student numbers by scrapping the bursary has failed conclusively,” she said.
“If we are to encourage more people into nursing, the government must put a minimum of £1bn a year back into nursing education in England - the future of patient care is at stake,” noted Ms Aiken.
Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, called on the government to commit funding into supporting nursing degree apprenticeship.
The apprenticeship route for nurses was introduced in September 2017 to boost the workforce but figures obtained by Unison show only 260 people were registered on a course in the 2017-18 academic year.
“The increase in nurses and midwives joining is woefully short of what’s needed,” Ms Gorton said. “It’s yet more evidence that committed funding for nursing degree apprenticeships is vital.
“Support staff, including healthcare assistants, are eager for the chance to progress, and have already proven they’re dependable. Their contribution to the future NHS workforce would be considerable,” she said.
“But employers won’t let them study without more money to cover the days they’re off the wards. The government is squandering this opportunity by failing to invest in apprenticeships,” she added.
The number of midwives on the register has continued to rise year on year since 2013, peaking at 43,999 in September this year.
Sean O’Sullivan, head of health and social policy at the Royal College of Midwives, welcomed the “modest” overall increase but raised concerns about the fall in EU midwives.
He added that England remained short of 3,500 full-time midwives and noted that pressures on staff were continuing increase as births became more complex.
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“This is why we need to have systems in place to keep and bring in midwives and other staff from outside the UK,” said Mr O’Sullivan.
“There is also a need to continue to focus on retaining the staff we have. We train around 2,000 midwives every year in England but the total workforce is only creeping up,” he added.
The government has committed to training an additional 3,000 midwives in England over the next four years.
Former health minister Ben Bradshaw, who is also MP for Exeter and a supporter of the NHS Against Brexit campaign, welcomed the overall rise but said he was “disappointed” to see the decline in EEA staff.
In light of the new data, Mr Bradshaw reiterated calls for a public vote on the final Brexit deal that is negotiated – named a People’s Vote.
“In the face of 41,722 NHS nursing vacancies, anything that turns away key staff is not worth it,” he said. “We need a People’s Vote because we can’t stop this staffing crisis without EU nurses. To fix the current staffing crisis, this trend would need to continue for over a decade.”