Leaving the EU will further strain an already thinning nursing workforce, according to research from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES).
Commissioned by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) the research found that the NHS is heavily reliant on the current supply of nurses from EU countries like Spain, Portugal and Ireland, comprising 4.5% of the total nursing workforce.
Brexit is likely to hit this EU pipeline because of uncertainty around the status of EU workers in the UK, which could lead to EU nurses returning home and far fewer able to work in the UK.
Furthermore, with one in three nurses due to retire in the next 10 years and a lack of homegrown nurses to fill the imminent gap, the shortage could become all the more severe.
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies said: “This report makes sobering reading and it is clear that without urgent action the UK is heading for a major nursing shortage.
“This was a preventable crisis, caused by years of cuts to student nurse commissions and a lack of long-term workforce planning.
“It could be worsened by the Government’s untested gamble with student nurse funding which our members are clear will have a negative impact on the future supply of graduate nurses, who are vital for delivering safe patient care.
“Thanks to years of short-term thinking, the UK is completely unprepared to deal with the challenges posed by an ageing workforce, increasing demand, and now the uncertainty caused by leaving the European Union.
“In the near future, this uncertainty threatens the international recruitment which the NHS will rely on for many years to come. Staff from EU countries who work in the UK must be given reassurance over their future.”
She added: “Failing to invest in long-term workforce planning in the past is costing the NHS dearly now, and these mistakes must not be repeated.”
The research follows a recent recommendation from MAC that the Government grant up to 15,000 visas over the next three years to non-EU nurses to fill positions.
However, the new IES research recommends that the Government go further and ensure the UK has a domestic supply of nurses able to meet future demand.
Together, EU and non-EU nurses make up around 12% of the UK nursing workforce, with London and the South East most reliant on nurses from overseas.
The research found the composition of the overseas nursing workforce has shifted in recent years, with EU nurses increasingly prevalent.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said: “There are significant concerns that the shortage of nurses in the UK will not be helped by the uncertainty felt by EU staff working in health and social care.
He added: “It is clear that the ongoing shortage of nurses is not a short-term issue. The report identifies very clearly the complex factors which have led to the shortage of nursing, not least the need for more effective service planning to drive our workforce plans.”