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Concerns have been raised about nurse vacancies post-Covid-19 amid a huge decline in overseas registrations during the pandemic.
New data from the Nursing and Midwifery Council has laid bare the full scale of the disruption caused by the outbreak to international recruitment.
“We know that employers are concerned about the vacancies in their workforce”
The number of overseas nurses from countries outside of Europe joining the NMC register on a permanent basis fell from 1,348 in March 2020 to just 35 in April 2020 – the month the pandemic peaked in the UK.
The decline has been attributed for the most part to travel restrictions and other protective measures put in place in the UK and abroad in response to Covid-19.
In addition, the three centres that run the Objective Structure Clinical Examination (OSCE) tests, which overseas nurses must complete before joining the UK register, closed their doors in March due to the pandemic.
Emergency legislation introduced by the government in the wake of the crisis allowed the NMC to launch a temporary coronavirus register to boost the workforce to meet demand.
At the start of April, the temporary register was opened up to internationally trained nurses in the UK who had completed all parts of the UK registration process except the OSCE.
Throughout the course of the month, 2,006 overseas nurses signed up under these conditions, according to the NMC data, which was obtained by Health Service Journal and has been seen by Nursing Times.
The temporary register is expected to close once the health and social care secretary determines the emergency to be over.
Nursing Times understands that talks are currently underway between the NMC and its national partners about how the UK’s longer-term workforce needs will be met in the pandemic aftermath.
“We’ll all need to redouble our efforts to attract, support and grow our nursing and midwifery workforce”
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said gaps in the workforce from the loss of overseas recruits had been “mitigated” by redeployment, student placements, and returners, as well as the implementation of different ways of working and technology.
However, he noted that trusts were “concerned” about vacancies going forward. “We are in regular contact with trusts about what support they need to look how they can reset, restarting student education and sharing good practice,” he said.
“We know that employers are concerned about the vacancies in their workforce and so we are also working as a system to attract people to the NHS who may never have thought of it as a career.
“For a range of reasons, we know that our plans to recruit from outside the UK have, on the whole, paused,” said Mr Mortimer.
He said employers had indicated their intention to “restart some activity” in “due course”, once travel restrictions were lifted and overseas registrant testing capabilities were switched back on.
“In the meantime, we are focusing our efforts on supporting the people in the UK in their roles at this very critical time,” he added.
In May, NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens called on universities to increase their annual intake of student nurses in England following an apparent surge in people expressing an interest in the profession.
Commenting on the new NMC data, the Royal College of Nursing said action was needed to scale up the domestic supply of nurses, and to retain those already in the workforce.
“Overseas nurses have been a vital part of our nursing workforce, particularly in response to the Covid-19,” said a college spokesperson.
“But we need to see significant planning for the expansion of the UK health and social care workforce to reduce the current over-reliance on overseas nurses.
“This includes significant and sustained investment to retain our experienced nursing workforce. And in England, investment into financial support for nursing students, including living cost and tuition fees.
“Only then can we be confident we have a workforce able to deliver the future of the health and social care and address the still significant shortages that continue to put pressure on services.”
Andrea Sutcliffe, chief executive and registrar of the NMC, also called for a “redoubling” of efforts to retain and train nurses.
“Nurses and midwives trained from outside of the UK are a vital part of our health and care workforce, and the huge contribution nursing and midwifery professionals have made to tackling Covid-19,” she said.
“As we consider the wider impact of the pandemic, protective measures here and abroad are likely to have a significant effect on the flow of people joining our permanent register from overseas, at least in the short term.
“We’ll all need to redouble our efforts to attract, support and grow our nursing and midwifery workforce and really focus on nurturing and retaining the skilled, talented professionals we already have,” she said.