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Exclusive: EU nurse figures in decline before Brexit vote

The falling number of European Union (EU) nurses applying to work in the UK has been widely blamed on Brexit. But figures obtained by Nursing Standard reveal interest from EU nurses was waning months before the June 2016 referendum, a trend experts say could be due to tougher language requirements introduced by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).
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The falling number of European Union (EU) nurses applying to work in the UK has been widely blamed on Brexit.

But figures obtained by Nursing Standard reveal interest from EU nurses was waning months before the June 2016 referendum, a trend experts say could be due to tougher language requirements introduced by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).

Only 453 application packs for registering as a nurse in UK were requested by or sent out to EU nurses in December 2016, compared with 3,967 in January the same year the month before the language requirements were raised and six months before the Brexit vote.

Tougher language tests

Workforce expert and Queen Margaret University professor James Buchan said: The fall in

The falling number of European Union (EU) nurses applying to work in the UK has been widely blamed on Brexit.


According to figures seen by the Nursing Standard, interest from EU nurses was abating months before last summer's referendum. Photo: iStock

But figures obtained by Nursing Standard reveal interest from EU nurses was waning months before the June 2016 referendum, a trend experts say could be due to tougher language requirements introduced by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).

Only 453 application packs for registering as a nurse in UK were requested by or sent out to EU nurses in December 2016, compared with 3,967 in January the same year – the month before the language requirements were raised and six months before the Brexit vote.

Tougher language tests

Workforce expert and Queen Margaret University professor James Buchan said: ‘The fall in EU nurse applications and registrations has been presented as a Brexit factor, but in part reflects the tougher language tests imposed by
the NMC.’

Figures from the NMC show that in 2016, 1,154 EU nurses joined its register in April, rising to 1,304 in July, before falling sharply to 157 in November and 101 December.

In February that year, the regulator introduced a requirement that European Economic Area-trained nurses and midwives who want to join the UK register provide proof of their English language skills, to ensure patient safety.

Prospective registrants can take the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam to prove they have the language skills to communicate and practise safely in the UK. They must complete the academic version of the test, and score at least seven in the listening, reading, writing and oral sections.

Recruitment drives

West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust director of human resources and organisational development Paul Da Gama said previously successful recruitment drives in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy had ‘dried up’ in recent months. 

While Brexit had made the UK a less attractive option for the mainly young EU nurse recruits, IELTS had also had an effect, Mr Da Gama said.

‘We noticed a big impact with IELTS, because it was immediate,’ he said.

‘I think we definitely had a problem pre-Brexit. We had already started to see a massive drop off.’

Lessons in English

In addition to those who score seven or higher on the IELTS, the NMC also accepts EU nurses who have attained nursing qualifications taught in English, where at least 75% of clinical practice is conducted in English. 

Both Mr Da Gama and the director of recruitment and workforce and organisational development at nearby East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust, Tom Simons, want the required IELT standard reduced.

An NMC spokesperson told Nursing Standard: ‘Patient safety is our first priority and the code requires all nurses and midwives to have the necessary command of English to practise safely and effectively.

‘We are mindful of the staffing pressures within the health service, however, we cannot compromise on our commitment to protect the public.’


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