With a dire shortage of nurses in the NHS, it has been reported that over 5,500 nurses left the UK last year to work abroad for better pay and working conditions. This is the highest number in the past ten years and with the Government’s proposed removal of student bursaries set to go ahead next year, the situation is likely to get even worse.
English speaking destinations such as the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are the most popular choice for UK nurses who choose to emigrate. In the US a starting salary can be as much as £40,000 a year, with perks such as health insurance, return flights back to UK and subsidised rents or mortgages and a far less stressful working environment. In the UK the starting salary is approx £15,000, rising to £18,000 after several years experience.
It’s not surprising that fewer students are choosing nursing as a profession. A maximum tuition and maintenance loan for three years would see a graduate nurse burdened with a student loan debt of between £47,712 and £59,106 depending on the course studied, the location and whether or not the student lives in the parental home
In order to fill the massive number of nursing vacancies it’s been essential to attract an increasing number of nurses from overseas. In 2015, 8500 nurse and midwives came to the UK, many from poor countries such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines. This means that these third world countries have even less medical support and increasingly poorer health for an already deprived population.
In 2016, for the first time ever, the number of foreign nurses working in the NHS is likely to be more than the figure of newly qualified UK nurses, an unfortunate historical landmark for the NHS which further highlights the nursing crisis in the UK’s healthcare sector.
Consecutive governments have failed to tackle the issue and the cost to the NHS of recruiting nurses from abroad has been over £72million, money which could have been used to train thousands of British nurses or incentivise skilled nurses to stay put.
Another problem has been the retention of foreign nurses, many of whom don’t stay longer than six months. This is through a combination of working conditions and the challenges of being in a completely different culture without any support.
The figures are grim, with the UK sending twice as many nurses to the US and Canada as it receives and three times more to Ireland. The Government has unsuccessfully tried to improve conditions with an 8% pay increase for higher grade nurses, flexible working conditions and improved childcare facilities.
Caroline Hyde-Price, head of the international office at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “It shows the Government has a long way to go to encourage nurses to stay in the NHS – there is huge interest in working abroad.”
Yet a spokesman for the Department of Health insisted that the situation was not a problem. “We’ve got more nurses returning to the profession, record numbers of training places and the vacancy rate has fallen. The bottom line is that we have increased the number of nurses by 17,000”
This comment does not provide any comfort for those nurses working in the NHS today whose daily experience is one of a desperate shortage of colleagues to help ease the burden.