Hospitals in England are struggling to recruit staff for tens of thousands of nursing vacancies amid a mounting workforce crisis in the country.
There are nearly 39,000 vacancies for registered nurses in England, according to the most recent figures by the NHS, which also reveal one in 10 nursing posts empty on acute wards in London and one in five nursing posts unfilled on mental health wards in the south-east.
Thousands of nursing shifts each week cannot be filled because of staff shortages, according to hospital safe staffing reports seen by the Observer.
Concerns about the impact of acute staff shortages on patient care are revealed after experts warned last week that flu could kill up to 60,000 this winter.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, part of the NHS Confederation, said, “We have experienced the pressure we would usually see in the winter months over the summer. Many staff are predicting that this will be one of the most difficult winters the NHS has ever faced.”
Hospital leaders are warning ministers that the nursing shortfall has been aggravated by a collapse in the numbers of recruits from Europe, including Spain and Italy.
There has been a decline of over 90% in the number of nurses from the European Economic Area joining the Nursing and Midwifery Council register, from 9,389 in the year to 31 March 2016 to 810 in the year to 31 March 2021.
NHS England is paying NHS trusts up to £7,000 for each vacant post in a bid to recruit nurses from overseas countries including India and the Philippines.
Patricia Marquis, England director for the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said, “There just aren’t enough staff to deliver the care that is needed, and we now have a nursing workforce crisis. We should never have got into a position where we were so dependent on international nurses. We are on a knife-edge.”
Dave Carr, 58, a critical care nurse at St Thomas’ hospital and a Unite representative, said, “I work in intensive care for patients recovering from surgery and we need up to 11 nurses on that shift, one for each patient. We regularly only have three or four of our own nurses available and have to borrow nurses from other areas or get temporary staff. Staff are absolutely wrecked. More than 100 nurses have left the trust in the last 10 months.”
Shelley Pearce, 34, an accident and emergency nurse and RCN workplace representative in southern England, said nurses from Europe faced abuse from some members of the public after the Brexit referendum.
“I can quite understand why some made a decision to go home because they didn’t seem to be wanted,” Pearce said.
Seventy-three percent considered leaving the UK in the last year, according to a survey of over 1,000 NHS staff carried out by the Healthcare Workers’ Foundation, a charity that supports health service employees.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, urged the government to have a fully costed workforce plan in its spending review this month.
“We’ve had workforce shortages for many years, and we’ve seen that exacerbated by Brexit. The workforce is the engine of any hospital and when you have shifts that aren’t filled, that’s a huge challenge.”
Nearly one in three frontline staff said they were likely to leave in the next year, found the survey.
This comes as the UK is already facing worker shortages after Brexit from lorry drivers to farm workers.