• New data shows “crash” in the number of EU nurses registering to work in UK
  • Professor Jim Buchan warns the situation is the worst for 20 years
  • Fall in recruitment of nursing staff after Brexit could exacerbate existing workforce shortage

There has been a “crash” in the number of European nurses registering to work in the UK since the EU referendum last June – prompting warnings the NHS is facing its worst nursing workforce crisis for 20 years.

eu nurses graph

The number of EU nurses registering with the NMC

eu nurses graph

New data obtained by HSJ shows the scale of the decline in nurses from EU countries registering with the Nursing and Midwifery Council since the vote, suggesting fears over the impact of the Brexit referendum are being realised.

The monthly statistics show the number of EU nurses registering with the NMC to work in the UK peaked at 1,304 in July 2016, a month after the referendum.

However, in the following months, applications have dropped significantly – with a steep fall by September to 344 applications.

The decline continued, culminating in a drop to just 46 EU nurses registering with the NMC in April 2017.

As well as the referendum result, another contributory factor to the decline could be the introduction of new tougher language testing by the NMC since June 2016, delaying many applicants. However, the number of EU nurses applying to the register was increasing until shortly after the referendum.

The findings have emerged as part of work by Anita Charlesworth and Professor Jim Buchan in a study on the NHS workforce labour market for The Health Foundation, due out later this year.

Professor Buchan, based at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, said: “It is a crash. Clearly something has happened in that period, and that something was most likely the Brexit vote and the uncertainty that has created. It has led to a change in the choices being made by individual EU nurses and midwives.

“That crash has been sustained in the months since. Nurses from the EU are no longer registering in the same numbers and if they aren’t registered they can’t practice. Non-EU nurse inflows have increased but not by enough to offset the decrease from EU nurses.”

He said there had been a growth in EU nurse inflows to the NHS in recent years as the number of trainees in the UK failed to meet employer demand.

Professor Buchan warned the situation was “bleak and looking to get bleaker”. He added: “We are looking at an increasingly tough situation for recruitment and retention of the nursing workforce. The situation is more problematic now than at any time in the last 20 years and the forward view is more worrying than the current situation.”

The difficulties have been exacerbated by the decline in UK based nurse trainees, which was cut by more than 10 per cent at the beginning of the decade. Health Education England has since increased numbers because a shortage was predicted until at least 2019 even before to the Brexit vote.

Nursing was added to the immigration shortage occupation list in 2015 because of the need for nurses and the difficulties in recruiting from outside the EU due to tougher immigration rules.

Last month, HSJ analysis of NHS Digital data also showed the numbers of EU nurses leaving the NHS increased by a third in the year to December 2016, meaning the decline in nurses joining the NMC will exacerbate shortages.

In April, leaked Department of Health modelling suggested that in a worst case scenario the NHS could see a shortage of 42,000 nurses by 2026. The Royal College of Nursing warned such a shortage would mean the closure of hospitals and services to keep patients safe.