Nurses from the European Union may soon be required to take a test proving they are suitably equipped to speak English before working in the NHS.
Nurses from outside the EU are asked for evidence that they have passed the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) but a legal loophole has prevented this being applied to EU nurses.
Under new controls proposed by ministers, if EU applicants are unable to demonstrate that they understand the English language, they will be required to take a test instead, such as the IELTS.
Once they have shown they can use the English language, applicants will be assessed against the NMC’s usual requirements, such as character and health checks, before being allowed entry onto the register.
“The RCN has been calling for this change as it is vital that language skills can be tested before people start caring for patients”
When approved, the NMC says the changes will be implemented following public consultation, and become effective later this year.
Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: “The health service relies on nurses from overseas, who have come to the UK to provide good care for patients since the NHS was founded.
“The RCN has been calling for this change as it is vital that language skills can be tested before people start caring for patients. Good communication skills are at the heart of good nursing.”
However, Dr Carter said the regulations do not automatically mean a nurse who has completed a language test will be recruited from another country and go straight onto NHS wards. “A nurse coming from overseas will also need a proper induction,” he said.
“Public safety must be the driving force behind this and, as such, these proposals make a lot of sense”
The Royal College of Midwives also offered approval. Louise Silverton, director for midwifery, said: “Public safety must be the driving force behind this and, as such, these proposals make a lot of sense. They will help to ensure that midwives who work in the UK have the level of competence in reading, writing and speaking English needed to ensure good communication with the people they care for.”
Health minister Dr Dan Poulter hailed the move, which relies on cross-party support, as a boost for patient safety, after regulations were put before Parliament, clearing the path for a Commons vote within weeks.
He said: “These powers will make it easier for regulatory bodies to carry out checks to ensure healthcare professionals have the necessary knowledge of English.”
A shortfall in British-trained nursing staff has seen demand for foreign nurses soar in recent years, with many trusts hiring from EU and non-EU countries.