The new health and social care secretary has announced plans to “significantly increase” overseas recruitment of health workers, but nursing leaders have once again warned that this route “isn’t the only solution” to the workforce crisis.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Steve Barclay said he was preparing “for reasonable worst-case scenarios” as the NHS approaches the colder months.
“Our health system is already over-reliant on international nursing staff and we must ensure recruitment is ethical”
He said he was concerned for the challenges that autumn and winter may bring, including Covid-19 waves and the flu, and that decisions involving the workforce could therefore not be delayed.
To meet extra demand, Mr Barclay said he had ordered civil servants to “work at pace” to produce proposals that would “significantly increase” international recruitment of health workers, including nurses.
Hiring more nurses from overseas, including India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, may help tackle workforce shortages which would lead to quicker discharging and may free up beds, the health secretary told the newspaper.
He added that social care was an area of focus and suggested bringing in staff from overseas who have nursing qualifications, but not a high enough standard of English to work in the NHS, to work as unregistered assistants or carers.
Mr Barclay told The Telegraph: “A big part of my focus has been giving a lot more ministerial time to looking at the issues on delayed discharge, on social care recruitment. If there’s pressure on the system and that requires more beds in the community, those beds need the workforce to go with them.”
Health leaders have welcomed Mr Barclay’s focus on the workforce crisis but have warned that international recruitment is not the only answer.
Patricia Marquis, director for England of the Royal College of Nursing, said Mr Barclay was “right to say” that the social care crisis needs fixing.
However, she said that recruitment from overseas “isn’t the only solution”.
“Our health system is already over-reliant on international nursing staff and we must ensure recruitment is ethical and not being done in countries that are facing workforce shortages more severe than our own,” she told Nursing Times.
“Internationally trained nurses must also have the support they need to thrive in the UK.”
She added: “The focus must be on boosting domestic recruitment and retention – a simple way to do that is to pay staff fairly.”
Professor James Buchan, leading nursing workforce expert and senior fellow at the Health Foundation, echoed these concerns.
He told Nursing Times: “Given the scale of staff shortages in nursing homes and the social care sector, it is not surprising that active international recruitment is on the agenda of these employers.
“It can be a relatively quick fix, but we at the Health Foundation are highlighting the urgent need for a national workforce plan which focuses primarily on fully funded domestic training and recruitment.”
Professor Buchan added that in terms of international recruitment of nurses, it needs to be clear that anyone who practices as a registered nurse in the UK must have been assessed and registered by the NMC – and this includes their language capabilities.
The announcement comes at the same time as a recent report from the cross party Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, which found that the adult social care sector does not have enough funding now and in the long term.
The report warned that the government “currently has nothing more than a vision, with no roadmap, no timetable, no milestones, and no measures of success” to implement plans which would support the social care workforce.
Also responding to Mr Barclay’s comments, Danny Mortimer, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “The secretary of state is correct to seek to address the workforce crisis and international recruitment is undoubtedly preventing the problem getting worse.”
However, he too warned that this “route alone is not going to be sufficient” to fill the hundreds of thousands of vacancies across the NHS and social care.
Meanwhile, the interim chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery said the NHS in England also needed “to boost workforce numbers quickly” and that while overseas recruitment was one “important route”, retaining existing staff was of equal importance.