Junior health minister Lord Hunt has pledged that overseas recruitment to find 20,000 extra nurses for the NHS in four years will 'have to be done on an ethical basis in countries with a surplus of staff '.

But he was unable to provide estimates of the proportion of new recruits who would come from outside the UK.

Before the NHS plan was published, Royal College of Nursing policy director Pippa Gough said a 'small pool of nurses is being overfished' and other countries in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Ireland were 'struggling for nurses' and looking to recruit from the UK.

But last week, RCN director of employment relations Stephen Griffin was more optimistic. He called the recruitment plans 'ambitious but achievable'.

NHS Executive head of recruitment, retention and employment policy David Amos said the NHS would be looking to Europe first, but then at a whole range of countries.

Eastern Europe, the US and Canada are among those being considered.

Mr Amos claimed that Spain's health minister was keen for the UK to employ between 4,000 and 5,000 unemployed Spanish healthcare workers.

Recruiting from abroad was 'not a panacea, but when well- managed it had a proper place to play in staffing the NHS', he said.

In the UK, the government is hoping measures such as 'staff hotels' and creches will persuade people into nursing.

John Yates, the first NHS housing co-ordinator, has set a target of finding 2,000 extra accommodation places in London region by the end of next year.

A major deal is being finalised to provide about 225 places in central London for staff from up to five trusts. Up to three staff hotels will be created in the capital.