NHS nurses from EU countries are quitting their jobs in record numbers, causing critics to warn that Theresa May is making the NHS staffing crisis worse by refusing to guarantee the rights of European citizens.
The figures have prompted calls for a so-called “NHS passport” to be offered to the 59,000 public sector healthcare workers from the EU, along with demands for the Government to immediately reinstate the nursing bursary scrapped this year.
Almost 2,700 EU nurses handed in their resignation letters in 2016, compared to 1,600 in 2014 – a jump of 68 per cent, according to freedom of information requests filed by the Liberal Democrats.
In total, some 6,433 EU nationals quit the NHS in 2016, up from 5,135 in 2014, responses from 80 of the 136 NHS acute trusts showed.
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said there had been a 92 per cent drop in the number of EU citizens working as nurses – from 1,261 nurses in the month after the referendum to just 96 in December. According to the organisation, 24,000 nursing positions in the NHS were unfilled.
The Government has said it would like to offer the three million EU citizens residing in the UK the right to remain, but has refused to assure them of their status, claiming doing so would lose the UK “negotiating capital”.
Janet Davies, Chief Executive and General Secretary of the RCN, said: “The Government risks turning off the supply of qualified nurses from around the world at the very moment the health service is in a staffing crisis like never before.
“As she pulls the trigger to begin negotiations, Theresa May must tell EU nurses and other occupations that they are needed and welcome in the NHS. It would not survive without their contribution.
“Sadly, it is no surprise that EU staff are leaving – they have been offered no security or reassurance that they will be able to keep their jobs. Few are able to live with such uncertainty.
“The Government has failed to train enough British nurses and cannot afford to lose the international workforce on which the NHS so heavily relies.”
Calling for the right to remain to be extended to health service workers immediately, Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Secretary Norman Lamb said: “These shocking figures show you can’t have a hard Brexit and a strong NHS.
“It is vital that we reassure NHS staff and social care workers from the EU that they remain welcome and valued in the UK following Brexit.
“These people save lives, yet this Conservative government is treating them with careless disregard.
“NHS and care services would struggle to cope if significant numbers of doctors, nurses and NHS staff from the EU left.
“Theresa May must do the decent thing and ensure the right to remain for all EU citizens, with an immediate guarantee for those working in health and social care.”
According to a January report by the Health Service Journal, 96 per cent of acute hospitals were failing to meet their own planned levels for registered nurses.
Between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 period, more than 150 hospitals failed to achieve their planned daytime staffing levels for nurses, while the data suggests gaps in rotas are being plugged with healthcare assistants.
Research published in November found that patients are a fifth more likely to die in hospitals where nurses are replaced with less-qualified staff.
The Department of Health said: “While the stock of nurses is broadly stable, some of the changes described are owing to the introduction of more rigorous language testing. The secretary of state has repeatedly said that overseas workers form a crucial part of our NHS and that we value their contribution immensely.”