The number of European Union nurses coming to work in the UK has continued to fall since last summer, with just 46 joining the Nursing and Midwifery Council register in April of this year, new figures have shown.
This represents a 96% decline since last July – when 1,304 European nurses joined the register – according to the Health Foundation think-tank, which collected the data following Freedom of Information requests to the NMC.
Nursing Times previously reported on the steep drop in the number of EU nurses registering to work in the UK during the last half of 2016.
At the time, the NMC proposed two potential causes driving the reduction. It said it was possibly due to new language testing rules that came in at the start of 2016 – and were still being processed until July – or the UK’s decision in June to leave the EU, or a combination of both.
In recent months, there have been growing concerns among trust chief nurses about the difficulty of the language test and resulting delays to EU nurse recruitment, as revealed by Nursing Times.
The NMC confirmed last month it would carry out a “stocktake” of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) that it currently uses.
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International recruitment has become increasingly important for the UK to help it fill nurse shortages in recent years, with the majority of foreign staff now being from the EU.
Today’s data should be a “wake-up call” to politicians and health service leaders, according to the Health Foundation’s director of research and economics, Anita Charlesworth, who said action was needed to put a stop to the dwindling numbers of EU nurses.
“Without EU nurses it will be even harder for the NHS and other employers to find the staff they need”
However, she highlighted that the root of the UK’s staffing problem was a lack of long-term workforce planning, in combination with cuts to training places.
“The recruitment and retention of nurses is one of the biggest challenges facing health and social care, with a shortage of 30,000 nurses in England alone,” she said.
”The drop in EU nurses registering to work in the UK could not be more stark – just 46 registered to work in the UK in April,” she said. “Without EU nurses, it will be even harder for the NHS and other employers to find the staff they need to provide safe patient care.
“Clearly, action is needed to offset any further loss of EU nursing staff in the near future. But the overall shortage of 30,000 nurses is not a shortage caused by the Brexit vote,” she noted.
“These figures should act as a wake-up call to the government as they enter Brexit negotiation”
“The chronic shortage of nurses is the result of years of short-term planning and cuts to training places. A sustainable, long-term approach to workforce planning is desperately needed,” added Ms Charlesworth.
Responding to today’s figures, the Royal College of Nursing stressed the importance of the contribution of EU staff and warned of “severe consequences” from the drop in numbers.
“Our nursing workforce is in a state of crisis, with more than 40,000 vacancies in England alone. Across our health service, from accident to emergency to elderly care, this puts patients at serious risk,” said RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies.
“These figures should act as a wake-up call to the government as they enter Brexit negotiations. EU staff should be left in no doubt that their contributions are welcome and valued,” she added.
Jon Skewes, director for policy, employment relations and communications at the Royal College of Midwives, said: “This is a staggering drop and one that worries the RCM greatly. We said before the referendum that we feared it would put off potential midwives coming to the UK and this is proving to be the case.
“England is already 3,500 midwives short of the numbers it needs and this serious fall is not going to help that situation,” he said. “This situation is also being compounded by the Government’s removal of bursaries for student midwives.
“This outlines why it is so critical that the government invests in maternity services and in midwives for the NHS. We have had this critical midwife shortage for over a generation,” he added.
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Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents health organisations across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, said: “EU nationals make a hugely important contribution to the delivery of health and care services, and it is only right this this is recognised.
“Their status after the UK leaves the EU is still uncertain and we continue to urge the government to guarantee the rights of EU nationals as soon as possible,” he said.
“This would be the first step towards ensuring the system is able to recruit and retain a motivated and qualified workforce fit for the 21st Century,” he said. “A clear public commitment from the government is needed, along with a firm agreement with the EU early in the negotiations.”
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