Parties’ migration policies could worsen dire nurse shortages, think tank warns

Nuffield Trust says figures highlight reliance on health and social care staff born outside the UK

Nuffield Trust says figures highlight reliance on health and social care staff born outside the UK

A group of overseas-trained nurses at Salford Royal NHS Trust in 2019
Overseas-born staff, such as this group of nurses at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust in 2019,
account for almost a fifth of the UK’s health and social care workforce Picture: Neil O’Connor

About a quarter of UK hospital staff were born abroad, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics.

The Nuffield Trust think tank, which requested the data, said they show how immigration has helped prevent ‘almost unimaginable’ shortages in the NHS workforce.

Reliance on staff from overseas is greatest in hospitals

Almost half of the increase in the health and social care workforce over the past decade comprises workers born outside the UK, the figures show.

Nuffield Trust researchers found the number of staff grew by 446,000 between 2009-10 and 2018-19, with 221,000 of these workers born overseas.

People born overseas made up almost a fifth (818,000) of the private and NHS health and social care workforce in 2018-19, but account for 14% of the general population.

Reliance on overseas staff was greatest in hospitals, where 23% of workers (324,000) were born outside the UK.

Restricting migration ‘could backfire spectacularly’ for the NHS

The Nuffield Trust called on political parties to ‘tread carefully with their migration policies’. Policy analyst Mark Dayan said: ‘With the NHS continuing to be a top priority for voters, restricting migration could backfire spectacularly, given we already have dire shortages and more staff are desperately needed’.

The think tank warned that if the annual increase in health and care staff from the EU were to fall by half, this would mean around 6,000 fewer net migrants each year, or 30,000 over a five-year parliament.

It said: ‘There is a very real risk that the migration policies proposed in the 2019 general election will make it more difficult to bring staff into the NHS and social care from the European Economic Area (EEA).

Overseas staff numbers need to increase, not decline

‘This could not come at a worse time: both sectors have deep staffing shortages and expanding demand, which means numbers of workers will need to steadily increase.

‘When a crackdown on migration for work took place around 2010, health and social care were able to compensate by bringing in more staff from within the EEA. This time, there is no escape valve available.’

RCN general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair said: ‘Continuing over-reliance on staff from abroad in this way is both unsustainable and unethical in the long term.

‘Instead, we need urgent measures to increase the size of our domestic workforce.’

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