The NHS is continuing to recruit hundreds of extra qualified nurses a month with numbers at their highest for a decade, the latest workforce data shows.

Figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre shows across the NHS workforce there were 314,173 full time equivalent qualified nurses and midwives in February, 8,148 more than August when the current spike in recruitment following the Francis report began.

In the acute sector there were 174,632 registered nurses and mdwives, 5,583 more than in August 2013 and 570 more than in January.

There are now more qualified nurses and midwives in the NHS than at any point since monthly data began to be collected in September 2009 and more than in any year since 2003.

However the numbers do not account for increases in patient acuity or demand and the Royal College of Nursing recently highlighted falls in the number of senior experienced nurses being employed in the NHS.

A recent survey of 104 NHS organisations by NHS Employers for Health Education England found just over 50 per cent were planning to recruit more nurses from overseas in the next 12 months with 90 organisations complaining of a shortage of nurses.

Sixty organisations said they were looking to increase qualified nurse numbers overall with almost half of these organisations - 28 - saying this was as a result of the publication of national safer staffing guidance.

The survey also revealed the extent of vacancy rates across organisations with an estimated number of vacancies of 12,566 full-time equivalent posts – the equivalent of £268m cost if all the jobs were filled by nurses on the lowest salary level of £21,478.

There was variation across the country for vacancy rates with levels between 18 per cent in South London and 6 per cent in the North East.

Regional breakdown of nursing vacancies:

Local Education and Training BoardNumber FTE vacant postsVacancy Rate
South London1,325.6718%
North Central and East London1,593.0914%
East of England896.512%
Yorkshire and Humber879.7611%
North West1883.3410%
Kent Surrey and Sussex1243.9710%
South West1637.579%
West Midlands1113.588%
East Midlands1360.928%
North East349.726%
North West LondonNo Data providedNo Data provided

Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said the report was “further evidence of the crisis in nurse numbers”.

“It is certainly positive that NHS organisations are now acknowledging the need for more nurses, but urgent action must be taken to address the current shortfalls in the nursing workforce.”

Health Education England has appealed for nurses who no longer practice to consider returning to a nursing role and is carrying out work to make this easier and more attractive.

Janice Stevens, who is leading the return to practice work for HEE, said: “Where trusts do have shortages of nurses, it is often those with experience that they need most. Attracting nurses back to practice has the potential to address current shortages.”