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World Health Organization warns of UK nursing workforce crisis

UK identified as having one in five nurses near retirement while lagging behind other European countries in terms of nursing graduates, according to WHO report

UK identified as having one in five nurses near retirement while lagging behind other European countries in terms of nursing graduates, according to WHO report

The UK is generating fewer nursing graduates and has an above average number of nurses nearing retirement – sparking further concerns of a workforce in crisis.

A report from the European branch of the World Health Organization (WHO) found that while the number of nurses in the UK is above the European average, concerns remain over a diminishing workforce as more nurses are retiring and less are entering the

UK identified as having one in five nurses near retirement while lagging behind other European countries in terms of nursing graduates, according to WHO report

World Health Organization warns of UK nursing workforce crisis
Picture: iStock

The UK is generating fewer nursing graduates and has an above average number of nurses nearing retirement – sparking further concerns of a workforce in crisis.

A report from the European branch of the World Health Organization (WHO) found that while the number of nurses in the UK is above the European average, concerns remain over a diminishing workforce as more nurses are retiring and less are entering the profession.

UK lags behind other European countries in producing nursing graduates

The report found the UK’s annual nursing graduates per 100,000 people was 31 in 2018, compared to 36.6 in Europe. Meanwhile, one in five nurses were aged 55 to 64 in 2019, higher than the latest European average of 18%.

The WHO report also calls for caution when measuring graduates as a source of new recruits, given that many graduate but never enter the workforce.

RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said the WHO's findings highlight the crisis facing the UK: ‘The report finds one fifth of the UK’s nursing workforce is reaching retirement age and that the UK is churning out too few nursing graduates – less than the average for other European countries and less than half as many as Romania, Albania and Finland.

‘Ministers across the UK must take note – urgent investment in nursing must include fair pay and measures to boost the domestic workforce, such as funding tuition fees.’

Damaging effects on recruitment of removing the nursing student bursary

In England the nursing student bursary was scrapped in 2017 and replaced with a tuition fees and loans system. The following year saw a dramatic drop in university placements for nursing courses.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland nursing bursaries are still in place, while in Wales it was retained for the 2023-24 cohort but it remains unclear if it will continue further.

More widely, the report warned of a deepening workforce emergency across Europe, with insufficient retention, recruitment and a lack of professional development opportunities.

Action needed to tackle healthcare workforce crisis across Europe

WHO regional director for Europe Hans Kluge said: ‘Tackling the health and care workforce crisis is absolutely critical.’

He told the WHO’s regional committee for Europe in Tel Aviv that workforce gaps were a ‘ticking time bomb’.

‘Our health and care workforce were already challenged before COVID-19,’ he said, citing personnel shortages, insufficient recruitment and retention, migration of qualified workers, unattractive working conditions and a lack of professional development opportunities.

Dr Kluge added: ‘If not addressed urgently, this could spell disaster. We absolutely need an optimal health and care workforce in place, on all fronts.’


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