Making European Union and other overseas nurses exempt from immigration quotas under a new system could help tackle widespread UK nursing shortages, according to a former nurse and MP.
Maria Caulfield, who has a background in cancer nursing and is now Conservative MP for Lewes in East Sussex, is a member of the cross-party Brexit select committee set up to scrutinise the government’s plans for leaving the EU.
“It is important we get the new immigration system working well for the NHS”
In an interview with a local radio station, she said it was vital to ensure much-needed professionals like nurses from the EU and further afield were welcomed “with open arms” post-Brexit.
Her comments come in the light of evidence that the number of nurses coming to work in the UK from the EU is falling in the wake of the Brexit vote, which was revealed by Nursing Times last week.
The number of EU nurses being admitted onto the Nursing and Midwifery’s register dropped from 1,304 in July to only 100 joining in December, according to figures recorded by the regulator.
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Meanwhile, trusts have also highlighted difficulties in recruiting from outside the EU to fill vacancies because of immigration rules.
“One of the problems we have with the current immigration system is there is free movement of people from within the EU, but it is very difficult to recruit nurses from the Philippines or doctors from India, and doctors or nurses from places like Australia or New Zealand,” she said.
“And what we really need is a robust global immigration system, so areas like nurses and doctors – where we do have a shortage – people can come and work here very easily,” said Ms Caulfield.
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“At the moment that isn’t the case for countries outside the EU, so it does put pressure on places like the NHS, which is so reliant on many overseas workers,” she told BBC Radio Sussex.
She said immigration policy was a key priority for MPs on the newly-created Exiting the European Union Committee, which had discussed the need for a flexible system.
“Firstly, there is an argument for exempting students out of immigration numbers for students doing all courses and from all places across the world, but also for areas where we are so short of staff – the NHS being one of them – that you do need to have a much more flexible system,” she said. “So it shouldn’t be one-size fits all.
“Those skills that we are short of we need to welcome with open arms, wherever they are from in the world – the EU, Commonwealth or from other parts of the world,” the Sussex MP noted.
“So, that is something that is being looked at quite urgently now, as we’re moving forward with Brexit,” said Ms Caulfield.
She acknowledged the need to boost the numbers of homegrown nurses, but said the health service was currently “dependent” on nurses from abroad. Estimates suggest 4-5% of NHS nurses are from the EU.
“That’s why it is important we get the new immigration system working well for the NHS,” she stated.
“If I’d to pay tuition fees, I’m not sure I would have gone through nursing”
When it came to boosting UK nurse numbers, she admitted the government was “taking a gamble” with plans to scrap student nurse bursaries.
By getting rid of the bursary system and lifting a cap on the number students on nursing courses, the government hopes more people will go into nurse training.
“I am not so sure that will work,” said Ms Caulfield, who said she believed nursing apprenticeships and the new nursing associate role would be more successful at swelling nurse numbers.
“I went through the bursary system myself and, if I’d to pay tuition fees, I’m not sure I would have gone through nursing,” she said. “I have made that very clear.”
However, she noted that since she had noted concerns about axing the bursary new policies, such as expanding apprentice nurse schemes had been announced – where trainees were learning but also being paid for the work they did in hospitals.
“There is not a huge number of apprentice places yet – it is still early stages – but if that sort of scheme was rolled out I think you would see a surge in UK nursing numbers,” she added.