Language tests introduced by the government to restrict immigration are stopping the NHS from recruiting foreign nurses.
This can even include highly qualified native English speakers, according to authoritative nursing voices.
There are clear gaps in the number of nursing staff available, yet even Australian and nurses from other English-speaking countries are being turned down due to unduly prohibitive English tests.
This is reflected in a sharp drop in the number of nurses registering in the UK, according to medical recruiters.
It is even believed that many British nurses would also fail the International English Language Testing System test (IELTS).
Nonetheless, some serious incidents in the past, in which doctors made major and fatal prescribing errors, does suggest that stringent English language conditions should indeed be put in place.
Yet only 46 nurses from the EU registered at the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) in April, compared with 1,304 in July 2016.
And Unison’s head of health Sara Gorton believes that this is being driven by uncertainty over Brexit and problems with language testing.
“[Foreign nurses] have been a vital supply route for us, and the tap’s being turned off. There is a ticking time bomb because the training bursary for nurses has been scrapped in England. We are going to be ever more reliant on filling gaps and this problem is only going to get worse.”
In response to these claims, the authorities asserted that the English test standards were only commensurate with other countries.
But official figures indicate that nurse vacancies have nearly doubled in the last three years from 6% in 2013 to 11.1% in 2016.
While around one-quarter of NHS trusts are currently experiencing vacancy levels in excess of 15%.
Indicative of this trend is the fact that around 7,000 nursing positions are currently advertised by the NHS Jobs website, and some of these vacancies having been unfilled for a staggering period of eight months.
The recruitment agency HCL states that only 176 of 949 candidates they have put forward have achieved at least seven out of nine in the English language test.
Native English speakers average just 6.3 in writing and 6.7 in reading, according to the British Council, a joint owner of the test.
“While we have no doubt that language testing is an essential part of recruiting overseas nurses, we firmly believe the current IELTS standard is not fit for this purpose. The NMC should look at switching to an average required score,” HCL commented in a statement.
Jackie Smith, NMC chief executive, is concerned about the existing situation.
“We do not believe it is in the interests of public safety to lower the standard of English competence required without clear evidence. While we are aware of concerns, we do not have any hard evidence on which to base a change.”