Figures reveal massive drop in number of EU nurses working in the UK

by Ray Clancy on June 15, 2017

Brexit is already affecting the number of nurses from European Union countries registering to work in the UK and raising concerns that it could result in a serious shortage in the nation’s health service.

The Health Foundation, a healthcare charity, has revealed that figures from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) show that one in nine positions in England is currently vacant, meaning that the NHS has a shortage of 40,000 nurses.

(Daniel Ernst/

The data also shows that last July some 1,304 nurses from EU countries joined the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) register but in April this year it was just 46, a fall of 96%.

The foundation says that the UK has repeatedly used international recruitment as a stop gap measure to fill staffing shortages, and since 2008 the majority of international nurses registering in the UK have come from within the EU.

But the fall in EU registrants suggests that a more sustainable long term approach to workforce planning is urgently needed as the uncertainty created by the Brexit negotiations could only put off more nurses from the EU looking to work in the UK.

‘The recruitment and retention of nurses is one of the biggest challenges facing health and social care. The drop in EU nurses registering to work in the UK could not be more stark, just 46 registered to work in the UK in April,’ said Anita Charlesworth, director of research and economics at the Health Foundation.

‘Without EU nurses it will be even harder for the NHS and other employers to find the staff they need to provide safe patient care. The findings should be a wake-up call to politicians and health service leaders,’ she added.

But she also indicated that it is not just Brexit to blame. ‘Clearly action is needed to offset any further loss of EU nursing staff in the near future. But the chronic shortage of nurses is the result of years of short term planning and cuts to training places. A sustainable, long term approach to workforce planning is desperately needed,’ she concluded.

Janet Davies, the chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said it important that Brexit talks target the issue of EU workers’ rights quickly to give current EU staff assurances about their future and for those who may be thinking about working in the UK.

‘We rely on the contributions of EU staff and this drop in numbers could have severe consequences for patients and their families. Our nursing workforce is in a state of crisis. Across our health service, from A&E to elderly care, this puts patients at serious risk,’ she added.

The NMC believes that immigration rules do play a vital role in encouraging or dissuading nurses from overseas. For example, the introduction of English language testing for EU nurses in January 2016 is also likely to have played a role in the vast drop in numbers.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said EU nurses have a valued role in the NHS and they would be a priority in Brexit negotiations.

Overall there are 650,000 nurses on the NMC register. Just over 36,000 of these have been trained in the EU, some 5.5% of the total. Another 67,000 come from outside the EU with the rest from the UK.

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