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EU nurse numbers dropped ‘significantly’ post Brexit vote and new language rules


The rate at which nurses from the European Union are coming to the UK to work has dropped significantly since the summer and has continued to slow until the end of 2016, official figures from the Nursing and Midwifery Council have revealed.

The number of EU nurses being admitted onto the NMC register dropped by almost half, from 1,304 in July to 761 in August, before falling to only 100 joining in December, according to the figures seen by Nursing Times.

“This is the first time in years that we have seen a drop-off [in EU nurses on the register]”

Jackie Smith

Meanwhile, the number of EU nurses leaving the register every month has increased slightly over the same time, from 257 leaving in July, to 318 in December.

The combined effect has meant the total number of EU nurses registered with the NMC shrank towards the end of the year – from 38,992 in September to 38,661 by December.

In the previous six years prior to 2016 there were annual increases – of between 15% and 28% – in the number of European nurses on the NMC’s register.

The regulator said this year’s drop off could be due to the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the introduction of new language testing rules over summer 2016, or a combination of both.

In January 2016, new regulations were introduced that meant the NMC could begin testing for English language skills. The new system came fully into effect by July, at which point all applications under the old system had been processed.

Nursing Times has previously reported of a surge in applications ahead of the new rules, suggesting applicants were put off by the prospect of being tested in the future.

Meanwhile, in June the UK voted in favour of Brexit, which has led to ongoing uncertainty about the immigration status of EU healthcare workers.

At the time, European nurses told Nursing Times that the referendum result was causing them to consider moving elsewhere and they predicted colleagues from other countries would be also be deterred from coming to the UK in the first place.

While EU nurses only make up about 5% of the total amount of nurses registered to work in the UK, the NMC’s chief executive said the decreasing numbers were an “early warning sign” of potential workforce supply problems.

“This is the first time in years that we have seen a drop-off [in EU nurses on the register],” said NMC chief executive and registrar Jackie Smith.

“English language testing is a factor….but then we’ve also got possibly Brexit as a factor”

Jackie Smith

“English language testing is a factor… but then we’ve also got possibly Brexit as a factor,” she told Nursing Times.

The NMC was now testing around 80% of all applicants from the EU on their English language skills, noted Ms Smith.

She said it was unclear whether the drop in EU nurses on the register was a result of fewer people applying because they were deterred by the new rules, or because a “significant number” of those tested did not pass first time.

She highlighted that the NMC had previously told employers they must support people with their applications.

Ms Smith said the regulator had a responsibility to notify government and other bodies of potential workforce supply problems, which it had done and would continue to do.

“What we are saying is this is an early warning sign and everyone needs to be alert”

Jackie Smith

“We made a commitment to [health] minister Philip Dunne that we would provide data, and I have also provided this information to the chief nursing officer for England, NHS Improvement and Health Education England,” said Ms Smith.

She said NHS employers would also be notified, but that NMC had not heard from organisations about any concerns so far.

“NHS employers are concerned about the possible effect of Brexit and what that would do to the supply, but they haven’t come to us and said the pool has dried up in Spain or Italy,” she said.

jackie smith

jackie smith

Jackie Smith

“What we are saying is this is an early warning sign and everyone needs to be alert to it,” she told Nursing Times.

Ms Smith said the drop off so far – down to just 100 EU nurses joining the register in December 2016 – was “significant” and that the regulator would continue to monitor the numbers.

EU nurses joining register for the first time has dropped since summer:

 Month  EU nurses joining the register for the first time Month-on-month change
 April 2016  1,154  
 May 2016  1,116  -3.3%
 June 2016  988  -11.5%
 July 2016  1,304  +32%
 August 2016  761  -41.6%
 September 2016  344  -54.8%
 October 2016  213  -38.1%
 November 2016  157  -26.3%
 December 2016  101  -35.7%
  • Data supplied to Nursing Times by the NMC in response to Freedom of Information request by James Meikle



Readers' comments (3)

  • I provide support to non-EU and EU qualified nurses to help them prepare for the IELTS. The minimum level required by the NMC (in reading, writing, speaking and listening) is 7 (i.e. degree level English). It is my opinion that a lot of UK trained nurses would not be able to achieve this level!

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  • I have passed the academic IETLS! It was the hardest exam I have EVER done in my life!!
    My scores:
    7 in writing; 7.5 in reading; 7.5 in listening and 8 in speaking!
    I'm very chuffed about that! I am now doing an access course to get all the requirements for uni. Thankfully, I have two offers from two uni :) I'm starting my nursing in September in Gloucester :) Most of my UK classmates wouldn't be able to do that test. It is NOT an english test, it is a brain capacity test.

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  • The reduction in EU nurses entering the NMC Register is 99% connected to the ridiculous English requirements put in place by the NMC in January 2016 and 1% because of Brexit. If all us native speakers were to attempt the IELTS exam tomorrow most of us would fail to reach the NMC requirement. If the required grade was reduced from a 7 to a 6.5 we would see a dramatic increase in the number of EU nurses entering the NMC Register and a zero effect on patient safety based on English Competencies.

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