Number of NHS nurses falls for first time since 2013 after 'significant drop' in EU staff

Significant reduction in EU nurses joining UK register since Brexit referendum and changes to language testing requirements are key reasons for the fall, according to the King's Fund

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 12 October 2017 00:20
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Analysis of data by the King’s Fund shows that there were fewer NHS nurses in post this summer than the previous summer, with 316,725 nurses in post in June 2017
Analysis of data by the King’s Fund shows that there were fewer NHS nurses in post this summer than the previous summer, with 316,725 nurses in post in June 2017

The number of nurses employed by the NHS has fallen for the first time since April 2013, figures have revealed, following a steep drop in EU nationals registering as nurses since the Brexit vote

Analysis of data by the King’s Fund shows that there were fewer NHS nurses in post this summer than the previous summer, with 316,725 nurses in post in June 2017 – 703 fewer than the same month last year.

A “significant” reduction in EU nurses joining the UK register since the EU referendum has been a key factor in the fall, as well as an increasing number of EU staff leaving the NHS and changes to language testing requirements, according to the analysis.

The King’s Fund states that the number of NHS staff leaving as a result of ill-health and work-life balance has also increased sharply over the last few years, suggesting stress has been an additional cause.

During the early 2000s, the number of nurses grew significantly as NHS spending increased, but from the beginning of the decade to March 2013, the numbers declined as the NHS entered a prolonged funding squeeze and implemented an efficiency drive.

Meanwhile, the number of European nurses registering to work in the UK has plummeted by 96 per cent since the EU referendum last June. Freedom of Information figures show that just 46 nurses from EU countries registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) in April 2017, compared with 1,304 in July 2016.

It comes after Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced plans for a 25 per cent increase in the number of nurse training places and the Government’s decision to scrap bursaries for student nurses, which initial indications suggest has resulted in a reduction in successful applicants.

The fall in nurse numbers raises questions about the NHS’s continuing ability to ensure patient safety – a key focus for Mr Hunt during his time as Health Secretary – and the ability of the NHS to cope with a challenging winter ahead.

Richard Murray, Director of Policy at The King’s Fund, said: “There is good evidence that having enough nurses is essential for delivering safe care, and so it is worrying that the number of nurses is going down at a time when services are already overstretched and the demand for care is rising.

“This means the NHS is less equipped to cope with the demands of a winter that was already threatening to stretch the NHS to the limit. While last week’s announcement of an increase in nursing training places is welcome, it will take years for this to translate into extra nurses on the wards.

“Workforce planning has been neglected for too long in the NHS, and the fact that the EU referendum result appears to have tipped the balance highlights how fragile the workforce situation has become. A new workforce strategy is desperately needed.”

Responding to the findings, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said the decline in nurses was “deeply worrying” and warned that concerns around Brexit were adding to workforce pressures.

“This fall in the number of nurses is deeply worrying. It comes as demand for care continues to grow. Staff are overstretched and performance is slipping, a point underlined by the CQC in its State of Care report,” she said.

“Patient safety is always the first priority for trusts, but this becomes much more difficult when staff are placed under intolerable pressure.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that concerns around Brexit are also adding to workforce pressures. We agree with the King’s Fund that a new workforce strategy is long overdue.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “This analysis refers to overall numbers for nurses and health visitors. Patients should be told that we actually have more nurses on our hospital wards since April 2016 not fewer, which alongside last week’s announcement of the biggest ever increase in nurse training places underlines our commitment to ensuring the NHS has the nurses it needs to provide the best possible care for patients, both now and in the future.

“There are also 3,193 more EU nationals working in the NHS than at the time of the referendum – we have been absolutely clear that they play a vital role in the NHS and want to see their excellent work continue long after the UK leaves the EU.”

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