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One in three nurses to reach retirement age within 10 years

Insufficient ‘home-grown’ nurses to fill gap; Brexit will hit supply hard, warns report

Caroline White

Friday, 08 July 2016

One in three nurses is due to retire within the next 10 years and there won’t be enough 'homegrown' nurses to fill the imminent gap or offset the loss of skills and experience, finds a new report* from the Institute for Employment Studies, commissioned by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

Brexit is likely to make matters worse, and will hit the pipeline of EU nurses “hard,” warn the report’s authors.

In recent years, the NHS has increasingly relied on sourcing nurses from EU countries like Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, although EU nurses still only account for 4.5% of the total nursing workforce, with a further 8% coming from non-EU countries, says the report.

The MAC recently recommended that the government grant up to 15,000 visas over the next three years to international nurses to ease the current shortage.

But the government must go further and ensure that the UK has a domestic supply of nurses that can meet the future healthcare demands placed on the NHS, says the report.

This will require an adequate and sustained investment in workforce planning on the part of the government, it emphasises.

The report authors mapped NHS trusts' recruitment of international nurses and found that reliance on this workforce is greatest in London and the South East. They also found that the composition of the overseas nursing workforce has shifted dramatically in recent years.

EU nurses are now increasingly prevalent, reflecting a change in recruitment practices due to tighter immigration rules, fewer employment opportunities across the Eurozone, and health sector employers seeking to bring in more migrant nurses in general to alleviate shortages.

The report identifies three key causes of the current nursing shortage: insufficient government funding for student nursing places; an ageing workforce; additional demand since the Francis Report on safe staffing levels and increasing healthcare need, amid increasing financial difficulties for trusts.

The supply of nurses will now have to be reconsidered following the outcome of the EU referendum, says the report. 

Dr Rachel Marangozov, lead author, commented: “With one in three nurses due to retire in the next 10 years, there is now an urgent question for the government around who will replace them.

“With the uncertainty around Brexit, the recruitment pipeline from the EU is likely to be hit hard, and even the additional 15,000 visas for international nurses recommended by the MAC will not be sufficient to plug this gap in the workforce. The government needs to act now to ensure that the UK has a domestic supply of nurses to fill these future posts. This will require adequate and sustained investment in workforce planning.”

Danny Mortimer, chief executive, NHS Employers, commented: “There are significant concerns that the shortage of nurses in the UK will not be helped by the uncertainty felt by EU staff working in health and social care. It is clear that the ongoing shortage of nurses is not a short-term issue.”

RCN Chief Executive Janet Davies, said: “This report makes sobering reading. “It is clear that without urgent action the UK is heading for a major nursing shortage.”

But she insisted that the shortage was “a preventable crisis, caused by years of cuts to student nurse commissions and a lack of long-term workforce planning.”

She warned that it could be worsened by the government’s “untested gamble” with student nurse funding, which our members are clear will have a negative impact on the future supply of graduate nurses, who are vital for delivering safe patient care.

“Staff from EU countries who work in the UK must be given reassurance over their future. This will make longer-term workforce planning easier, but more importantly it is the only fair and moral way to treat staff who are making a vital contribution to the UK’s health service,” she said. “Failing to invest in long-term workforce planning in the past is costing the NHS dearly now, and these mistakes must not be repeated.”


* Marangozov R, Williams M, Buchan J. The labour market for nurses in the UK and its relationship to the demand for, and supply of, international nurses in the NHS. Institute for Employment Studies report, July 2016.

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