The head of a major NHS hospital which recruited more than 300 foreign nurses in the last year has described the situation as “distracting, frustrating and expensive”.
Hospitals are having to recruit foreign nurses to meet staffing demand despite tens of thousands of applications from would-be UK nurses being rejected last year.
Around 7,500 nurses from countries across Europe including Spain, Romania and Italy were recruited in the UK last year.
The number of non-European nurses coming to work in the UK has dropped over the last six years, but the number from Europe has been on the increase.
Dr Keith McNeil, chief executive of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, revealed 303 foreign nurses were recruited by the Trust hospital last year – half from the Philippines.
He told the BBC: “Nurses are the backbone of the NHS. You can’t run services effectively in an acute hospital like this without adequate numbers of trained nursing staff.
“It’s distracting, frustrating and expensive to do international recruitment. It would be nice not to have to do it… [and] to have a more targeted approach.”
Dr McNeil urged officials to “figure out” what resources were needed and improve UK recruitment.
He added: “We don’t have enough home-grown nurses, but we know the demographics. The health service has to figure out what resources are needed for our activity.
“We need proper planning; I think the people at Health Education England are doing that now.
“At least doing it now means avoiding having to do this in the years to come.”
Foreign nurses have their first month’s rent paid and are given £400 if they work for the NHS for 18 months.
Language courses are also provided to help improve their conversational English and newcomers are supported for 10 weeks to develop technical and clinical vocabulary.
Karen Webb, director of the Royal College of Nursing Eastern Region, said UK nurses want to get jobs here, but there are not enough training posts for them.
She said: “Our NHS, private hospitals and care homes now rely on nurses from other countries to keep services running and they remain vital to the work we do for patients.
“We could have enough home-grown nurses – we know that last year across the UK there were 57,000 applicants for 20,000 nurse training posts.
“We have the people here who want to be nurses and work for our health service but are not being given the opportunity.
“The Government needs to look closely at training numbers and our reliance on staff from Europe and elsewhere.”
Addenbrooke’s hospital estimates it costs approximately £3,000 to recruit each European nurse from outside the UK.
Health Education England said national training places had increased.
Addenbrooke’s Hospital has employed 41 Spanish nurses in the last few months.
Of the 2,856 nurses currently on the hospital’s books, 303 are foreign nurses employed in the last year.
It takes three years to complete basic training as a nurse.
Dave Munday, professional officer for the health sector at union Unite, said the government was ‘stealing’ resources from abroad while tightening immigration controls.
He said: “We have seen a reduction of nurses.
“There are no direct attempts to lay staff off, so more often they leave and are not replaced and obviously that’s a huge problem.
“Obviously we then had the Mid Staffordshire scandal and the government then woke up to what was happening.
“We often make a mess of things in this country, then we realise we have made a mess of things and then go to other countries and steal their resources.
“The government wants the best of both worlds.
“There are so many issues that have been perpetuated by decisions that have been made in the past.
“If it wasn’t for nurses from other countries we would be in a worse situation than we are now.”
Helen Chittock, branch secretary for union Unison, said it is a shame so many people in the UK are failing to get places on nursing courses.
She said: “It’s a shame we are having to recruit from overseas when there are so many people wanting to train in the UK.
“We obviously as a country need to do more training.”
A Health Education England spokesman said the organisation is planning on growing the nursing workforce by 23,000 during the next four years.
He said: “Nurse training is very popular, which is good news for the NHS and good for patients.
“Nursing is a great job and a rewarding career and the number of applicants for places is always very encouraging and we will grow the nurse workforce by over 23,000 over the next four years, but not everybody who wants to be a nurse can be a nurse.
“We need to make sure people have the right values and qualifications as well as being motivated to see through a hard three year course that includes hands on care for patients.
“Also, as nearly half of the course takes place in the NHS we need to ensure experienced nurses on our wards have the time to care for their own patients as well as support and train those new nurses.”
Katherine Murphy, Chief Executive of The Patients Association, said employing nurses from overseas is a well established practice which has benefited the UK.
She said: “It has been a long established and successful practice for the NHS to recruit nurses from different countries.
“The experience has been, with very few exceptions, that they are trained and qualified and bring with them a fine sense of professionalism and commitment in caring for patients.
“Many hospitals would be unable to function without the recruitment of overseas nurses.
“Of course, it would be more cost efficient for the NHS in the long run if was able to train enough British nurses to meet the increasing need and the Royal College of Nursing is tackling this problem as a matter of urgency.
“Closing the gap is not likely in the foreseeable future and in the meantime it is essential that the care and well-being of patients remains the top priority.”