More than 2,000 overseas nurses were denied permission to work in the UK last year, despite chronic staffing shortages, reveal figures obtained by the Royal College of Nursing.
Data from a Freedom of Information request shows 2,341 applications by trusts for a Certificate of Sponsorship were rejected between April and November 2015.
As revealed by Nursing Times in the autumn, visa applications for nurses from outside the European Union and Scandinavia to work in the UK soared by more than 200% last year.
Trusts must apply for a Certificate of Sponsorship if they wish to employ a nurse from outside the EU.
Until recently nursing was not officially recognised as a “shortage occupation”, meaning there was a limit on the number of certificates issued.
Senior nurses said these restrictions were putting them in an impossible position by hampering their ability to recruit at the same time as they were being told to ensure safe staffing and cut spending on agency staff.
In November last year, after calls from healthcare employers, regulators and unions, nursing was temporarily placed on the “shortage occupation list” by home secretary Theresa May.
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The RCN said the figures it obtained from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which polices the list, show the stark consequences of not including nursing permanently.
“The number one priority for all healthcare providers is making sure they have enough staff to deliver safe care to patients,” said RCN general secretary and chief executive Janet Davies.
“These figures show that when nursing is not on the list many trusts are unable to recruit enough nurses, which could have an impact on patient care,” she said.
“There is still a workforce crisis in the NHS and until enough nurses are trained the UK health organisations still need to be able to recruit nurses from overseas. With the cap on agency spending now in effect this is more urgent than ever,” she added.
“These figures show that when nursing is not on the list many trusts are unable to recruit enough nurses”
The advisory committee is currently reviewing whether nursing should remain on the list and is due to report back next month.
Figures published at the end of last year by the committee as part of a consultation revealed the number of applications for certificates of sponsorships for nursing posts had soared – with many being rejected because of the monthly limits.
However, the committee said it wanted to be certain trusts were doing all they could to recruit nearer to home first.
“Although the data indicates an increase in demand for nurses, the MAC stresses to partners that this is not in itself sufficient evidence of a shortage of nurses,” said a committee document.
“The MAC is keen to explore whether this increase in demand is occurring as a result of employers not adequately exploring the alternatives to bringing in nurses from outside the EEA [European Economic Area],” it added.
Such measures included stepping up recruitment within Europe, doing more to boost retention and creating return to practice schemes.
Meanwhile, the committee said more training places could be needed to ensure enough nurses in the long-term.
The Department of Health said tackling staffing issues was a priority and steps were being taken to boost numbers of homegrown nurses.
This included increasing adult nurse training places, Health Education England’s campaign to attract former nurses back into the profession and a £40m investment in nursing leadership training.
“Staffing is a priority – there are already more than 8,500 more nurses on our wards since 2010 and 50,000 more nurses in training,” said a Department of Health spokeswoman.
“We want more homegrown staff in the NHS and our recent changes to student funding will create up to 10,000 more nursing, midwifery and allied health professional training places by 2020,” she said.