Expert advice

The UK needs foreign nurses to keep coming, but the pandemic is stopping them

The flow of overseas nurses has all but dried up since the coronavirus outbreak

The flow of overseas nurses has all but dried up since the COVID-19 outbreak so ministers must take action

The UK, with its long-term nursing shortage, can ill-afford to lose the expertise of nurses coming here from abroad Picture: iStock

How will the COVID-19 pandemic affect global nurse supply?

The UK has more than 100,000 foreign-trained nurses , whom it uses to plug domestic shortages. Policymakers will have to scale up international recruitment if they are to deliver on the UK governments election promise of 50,000 more nurses.

A recent review identified four COVID-related factors that will play a role in determining patterns of international nurse supply. These are currently known unknowns; we understand they may have a significant impact but we cannot yet quantify their effect.

The flow of overseas nurses has all but dried up since the COVID-19 outbreak – so ministers must take action

The UK, with its long-term nursing shortage, can ill-afford to lose the expertise of nurses coming here from abroad Picture: iStock

How will the COVID-19 pandemic affect global nurse supply?

The UK has more than 100,000 foreign-trained nurses, whom it uses to plug domestic shortages. Policymakers will have to scale up international recruitment if they are to deliver on the UK government’s election promise of ‘50,000 more nurses’.

A recent review identified four COVID-related factors that will play a role in determining patterns of international nurse supply. These are currently ‘known unknowns’; we understand they may have a significant impact but we cannot yet quantify their effect.

Travel restrictions and overseas perceptions of the UK

Firstly, there are variable and often stringent restrictions on international travel, meaning that mobile nurses may not be able to move freely to chosen destinations. Over the next few months at least, patterns of travel will be shaped by the extent to which different countries maintain COVID-19 related border controls, and reduce or end them.

‘At the beginning of this year, around 1,000 international nurses were registering in the UK every month – by April, the figure had crashed to just 35’

Second, there may be a change in internationally mobile nurses’ perceptions of the relative attractiveness and safety of different countries. These will be informed by how effectively these countries responded to COVID-19, and how well-funded and robust their post-pandemic healthcare system is.

The UK has been one of the countries worst affected by COVID-19, both in terms of mortality and the broader economic impact.

Mixed messages on immigration and uncertainty about a coronavirus vaccine

A third policy issue is the extent to which general migration policies may change. The UK government has been tying itself in knots, stating it wants to recruit international nurses but at the same time signalling that it will make the general immigration process tougher.

Finally, there is the critical question of if, and when, an effective vaccine is developed that can halt the pandemic.

Crucially, none of these factors are in the control of NHS planners.

At the beginning of this year, before COVID-19, around 1,000 international nurses were registering in the UK every month. By April, the figure had crashed to just 35.

The COVID-19 pandemic has fractured the international nurse supply pipeline to the UK and highlighted how whole-government action is the only hope to fix it.


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