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Foreign workers play pivotal role in NHS: 1 in 5 staff non-UK nationals

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In England, the NHS’s dependence on international staff has hit a record high, with one out of every five workers hailing from outside the UK. This diverse workforce spans 214 nations, including countries as varied as India, Portugal, Ghana, and smaller states like Tonga, Liechtenstein, and the Solomon Islands.

Analysis of NHS Digital data reveals that as of September 2023, 20.4% of the 1,282,623 full-time equivalent (FTE) hospital and community health service staff in England were non-UK nationals. This marks a significant increase from 13% in 2016 and 11.9% in 2009, The Guardian reported.

Danny Mortimer, CEO of NHS Employers, emphasised the critical role this international workforce plays in sustaining the NHS amidst escalating pressures. He highlighted the need for a dual focus on retention and attracting new talent to ensure a robust recruitment foundation, alongside expanding domestic training as outlined in the NHS England long-term workforce plan.

The data further shows a significant presence of non-UK nationals among nurses and doctors, with 30% of nurses and 36.3% of doctors coming from abroad.

The largest groups among nurses and health visitors are from India, 10.1% of all FTEs, the Philippines, (7.7%) Nigeria, and Ireland, (1.1%) while Indian, (8% of all medics) Pakistani, (3.7%), Egyptian, (2.9%) and Nigerian (2.0%) nationals are the most common among doctors.

There has also been an uptick in the percentage of midwives (7.1% in 2020 to 9% in 2023) and medical support staff (7.2% in 2009 to 10.3% in 2016 and 17.6% in 2023) from outside the UK.

Experts like Lucina Rolewicz, a researcher from the Nuffield Trust, and Alex Baylis from the King’s Fund have pointed out the NHS’s growing reliance on overseas recruitment to fill staffing gaps, stressing the importance of supporting these international workers through fair treatment, access to training, and career progression opportunities.

Baylis said, “Staff from overseas are – and always have been – absolutely essential to the NHS and must be recognised and valued as such.”

The Department of Health and Social Care recognizes the crucial contribution of international staff but aims to lessen dependency on overseas recruitment through significant increases in domestic training placements for doctors, nurses, and GPs as part of the NHS long-term workforce plan.

This strategy aims to reduce the international workforce component from nearly a quarter to about 10% over the next 15 years.

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