Exclusive: Extent of NHS nursing shortage revealed

Catherine Jones

Former Health Editor

The pool of newly qualified nurses in England is reducing in size. Credit: ITV News

ITV News can reveal how many hospital trusts are being forced to recruit from abroad as they struggle to staff their wards.

In response to the Mid-Staffordshire hospital scandal, there's a renewed focus on safe staffing levels, and hospitals are boosting their nurse numbers.

To find out how those posts are being filled, ITV News made a Freedom of Information request to England's 160 acute hospital trusts. We got 74 responses and here are the results.

  • 57 trusts - that's 77 percent - confirm they have actively recruited from other EU countries since 2010.

  • 50 of them - 67 percent - had sent a recruitment team abroad to attract nurses to work at their hospitals.

  • Our survey also found 31 percent of nurses currently employed in England's hospitals have foreign nationality.

  • Spain and Portugal were the most popular destinations for teams of recruiters.

  • Hospitals also reported seeking nurses from Ireland and Italy.

Now, the NHS does have a long tradition of employing nurses from overseas, so why should these figures be a concern?

According to the Royal College of Nursing, there are two problems. Recruiting from abroad is expensive, and when the economies of their own countries improve, these nurses are likely to head home. It's a fix, but a short-term one.

Why aren't we producing enough home-grown nurses then? After all, each year more than 200,000 people apply for the 20,000-odd training places available, so there are plenty who are keen to join the profession.

According to the RCN, a big part of the problem is that between 2010 and 2013 there were repeated reductions in the number of places on nursing degree courses. This year, that cut has been partly reversed by Health Education England, which has increased the number of places available by 9 percent.

But a nurse takes three years to train, so the cuts of previous years are feeding through the system. The lower number of trainees who began training in 2011 mean there's a smaller pool of newly qualified nurses available now, so hospitals recruiting are really struggling.

Many hospital trusts are being forced to recruit nurses from abroad. Credit: ITV News

The Department of Health says:

Few people would object to hospitals increasing their nurse numbers. But if those extra posts are being filled by recruiting abroad, as our research indicates, then the NHS could risk losing those valuable staff before sufficient numbers of home-grown nurses have been trained up to replace them.