Yesterday the Nursing and Midwifery Council issued a press release reporting on a continued decline in the number of EU-qualified nurses and midwives joining the register, and a simultaneous increase in the number of EU-qualified nurses and midwives leaving. Behind the press release is a longer report, from which I have extracted two tables:
Judged on these figures the number of EU nurses coming to the UK looks to have slowed to a trickle. Elsewhere, in its report In short supply: pay policy and nurse numbers The Health Foundation points out that in 2015 NHS England had 22,000 too few nurses specialising in the care of adult patients. The mental health field, The Health Foundation adds, is one where (for the present) tools to calculate safe staffing are virtually non-existent.
Meanwhile, UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) reports that applications for higher education programmes commencing in the 2017-18 academic year have declined across the board, but that it is nursing courses which have seen the sharpest fall. Applicants from England making at least one choice to study nursing dropped by 23% (to 33,810) in 2017.
The RCN, amongst others, has long been campaigning against persistent low pay for NHS nurses, arguing that a career which is so obviously poorly remunerated is no incentive to potential new recruits. Nor, for that matter, does it help efforts to retain existing staff. Previous reports from the RCN tell us that the UK’s nursing workforce is an ageing one.
Taken together, the loss of European nurses in the context of last year’s EU referendum, chronically poor workforce planning, a nursing profession which is getting older (and will therefore lose members to retirement), the loss of bursaries in England and continued low pay make for a toxic combination. But things can be done. Agreeing the future security of EU citizens in the UK would be a start, along with removing the NHS pay cap. Reintroducing bursaries might help rekindle UCAS applications. Better planning of future NHS staffing needs is long overdue. Nursing, of course, remains a mightily fulfilling career and I would hate to think that this (admittedly rather negative) post puts off anyone contemplating a move in this direction. But it also serves to highlight some of the serious challenges which lie ahead.