• Covid pandemic puts pressure on international recruitment
  • Senior sources suggest first year of workforce plan “written off”
  • Some countries not allowing staff to resign to take up posts in the NHS

The first year of the government’s plan to significantly boost the NHS workforce has been hit by a significant fall in international recruitment caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to senior sources very close to NHS workforce plans, the challenging nature of the international recruitment market during the pandemic will mean increased staffing plans having to be heavily backloaded to reach the target of a net 50,000 increase in nurse numbers by 2024.

One senior figure told HSJ: “Most of the [planned] growth in nursing numbers during 2020-21 was coming from overseas. The government has now written off the first year [of its plan].”

Another senior source closely involved in NHS workforce planning confirmed that “conversations about the 50,000 target are going on” in the knowledge that “international recruitment will be difficult”. In light of this, they said the NHS would “need to keep all the returners” it had attracted back to the service during the pandemic.

HSJ reported at the end of last year that international recruitment would be the single largest contributor of extra nurses in the NHS, according to NHS England and Improvement’s leaked model. This model set out there would be 12,500 international nurses recruited over the next five years, with Health Education England working on the assumption an average of 2,500 nurses will need to be recruited each year.

HSJ also revealed the plan to significantly increase the scale and effectiveness of the NHS’s international recruitment drive. Speaking to HSJ this week, Health Education England’s director of global engagement Ged Byrne acknowledged that global travel restrictions have “interrupted ongoing international recruitment”.

According to Nursing and Midwifery Council and General Medical Council figures, the number of nurses and doctors joining the register from abroad had been growing at an increased rate. In 2019 the GMC noted the number of doctors joining the register from abroad was higher than those joining from the UK.

Senior sources have also said restrictions implemented by some of the main countries the NHS recruits from have added pressure to recruitment programmes. For example, they said the Philippines implemented a formal ban on exit visas for health workers, while India is not accepting resignations.

Some overseas staff who have already been recruited by the NHS, but who are on holiday or have not yet started work, have been unable to leave their home country.

However, one NHS trust chief executive, who wished to remain anonymous, said their trust had started to see restrictions slowly being lifted across the countries they actively recruit from.

“We have seen some instances of staff being unable to tender resignations during the crisis response and in these instances we have worked with candidates to delay proposed arrival dates. There are a number of candidates that have also tendered resignations and have ceased working and we are prioritising their arrival to try to prevent them entering into hardship.”

An NHS England spokesman said: “Looking out over the next few years it is obvious that the NHS will need to expand staffing substantially, and the unprecedented response to the coronavirus pandemic has also pointed to new opportunities for growing the UK NHS workforce.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “We have not set specific targets for recruiting nurses from abroad.”

“We remain committed to delivering 50,000 more nurses and from September we’re providing £5,000 a year for all student nurses.”