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Planning for a nursing workforce after Brexit

With just over a year to go before the UK leaves the European Union, nurse leaders need a new approach to recruiting and retaining the nursing workforce

With just over a year to go before the UK leaves the European Union, nurse leaders need a new approach to recruiting and retaining the nursing workforce

To put it simply: without nurses, the NHS doesn’t work. Yet recent statistics from NHS Digital (2018) suggest that in certain areas of Britain healthcare organisations have been hiring just one nurse for every 400 jobs advertised.


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With the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU) a year away, such findings mean it is vital that healthcare leaders start planning for Brexit and its potential effect on nursing.

The Brexit effect

At the end of last year, figures from the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) revealed a 90% drop in the number of overseas nurses coming to work in the UK (NMC 2017). We’ve now reached the point at which the number of nurses leaving the profession exceeds the number of new recruits (Royal College of Nursing 2018). To make matters worse, with an ageing population and winter crises putting further strain on resources, both human and financial, we now need our national health service more than ever.    

'Brexit should not be seen as a death sentence for the NHS'

Ahead of the referendum, the UK was already in the grips of a nursing workforce crisis. With 12% of staff in some parts of the country being nationals of other EU countries (Baker 2018), a hit to the supply of overseas talent can only deepen the issue, threatening the stability of the NHS and potentially patient safety.

Grow your own

Recruitment and retention are at the heart of the nursing shortage. Education providers, employers and the government must work together to ensure that prospective and current nursing students are treated fairly, provided with high-quality training and attracted to the profession.

Health Education England’s intention to invest £5 billion in education and training programmes in the next year is a step in the right direction, although the detail of this is still to be made clear. Work-based learning and investment in continuing professional development (CPD) for nurses can help organisations retain their nurses, by rewarding staff with progression and personal growth opportunities. However, massive reductions in CPD funding make investing in the existing workforce extremely difficult.

There is also some indication that the changes to the funding of pre-registration education in England may also be contributing to our ability to attract nurses into the profession. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) figures for 2017 entry show a 23% drop in applications for nursing degrees after the abolition in England of bursaries. Although the actual number of places taken up was down by only 3%, there are worrying signs of a further decrease in applications for 2018 entry (UCAS 2017).

'A hit to the supply of overseas talent can only deepen the issue, threatening the stability of the NHS and potentially patient safety'

While traditional three-year pre-registration nursing programmes will always provide the fastest route to growing the nursing workforce, the development of nursing degree apprenticeships may provide another solution to this recruitment issue.

The training solution

The NHS is the largest contributor to the apprenticeship levy, by which large employers in England must pay 0.5% of their total payroll, which can be recouped to fund apprenticeships. The levy provides the NHS with the opportunity to invest in the skills of both existing and future members of its workforce.

The degree apprenticeship approach has the potential to increase the appeal and accessibility of the nursing career path. Apprentices receive a salary and gain work experience, while simultaneously undertaking their undergraduate degree programme.

The need to invest in the skills of healthcare providers remains a priority for healthcare organisations across the UK; leaders must consider the forms of training at their disposal to fill gaps in the skills of their workforce.

The Open University recently contributed to the House of Commons health committee’s nursing workforce report (House of Commons Health Committee 2018), which called for a reversal of funding cuts to CPD, something we see as crucial to keeping nursing staff engaged and productive in the future.

Brexit should not be seen as a death sentence for the NHS, or its supply of nurses. Rather, the UK must shift its view of what makes the profession attractive. To fill the gap, we must put our money where our mouths are, and invest in the skills of our future and existing nursing talent. 

References


About the author

Jan Draper is professor of nursing at The Open University

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