English language tests for foreign nurses will be made easier in order beat staff shortages in the NHS.
The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) said it plans to change the requirements for overseas health workers after some were ‘just missing out’ on the current standard.
Officials say lowering the required level of written English will mean more potential NHS workers can pass the threshold.
The regulator said changes would ‘increase the flexibility’ for workers to come to Britain, where the NHS workforce is under ‘significant pressure’.
Regulators are proposing that English language tests are easier to allow more foreign nurses and midwives into the NHS to cope with the ‘significant pressure’
Nurses and midwives are not permitted to practise in the UK without being on the NMC’s register.
The NMC is proposing changes to the International English Language Test System (IELTS), which currently requires all employees to achieve level 7 in four areas.
Under the proposal, nurses and midwives will be required to continue achieving a minimum overall level of 7 in the English test but, in future, a level 6.5 in writing will be accepted alongside a level 7 in reading, listening and speaking.
There are other tests nurses and midwives can take to prove their English language capabilities.
HOW BAD IS THE NURSING CRISIS?
The shortage of NHS staff in England is continuing to worsen, official figures show.
Figures published by the regulator, NHS Improvement, for the April to June period showed that 11.8% of nurse posts were not filled – a shortage of nearly 42,000.
According to Health Education England, around 33,000 of these positions are filled temporarily by agency staff – an unwelcome extra expense for local NHS trusts.
As well as this, 9.3% of doctor posts were vacant – a shortage of 11,500.
Overall, 9.2% of all posts were not filled – a shortage of nearly 108,000.
A report by three leading health sector think-tanks estimates that if demand rises as predicted, the NHS will need 250,000 additional staff by 2030.
But if skilled workers cannot be attracted from abroad the shortage could reach 350,000 – roughly a quarter of the 1.2million workforce.
The report says a ten-year long-term plan for the NHS, which is due out next month, must include a funded, credible strategy to tackle the problem.
Experts say low pay and long hours are two of the main factors which make finding nursing staff difficult. This, paired with student debt, makes the profession unappealing for young people.
Of those quitting, more than half are under 40, with many citing stress and rising workloads for being behind their decision to leave.
‘Nurses and midwives from outside the UK are a vital part of our workforce, without them the health and care system as we know it simply wouldn’t exist,’ said Emma Broadbent, director of registration and revalidation at the NMC, said.
‘We absolutely recognise that good communication is essential to safer, better care and people can be assured that only those who can communicate to a high standard in English will be able to join our register.
‘We also recognise the current workforce is under significant pressure and the number of vacancies are well documented.
‘The change proposed would increase flexibility for highly skilled professionals coming to the UK without compromising safety.’
This isn’t the first time the NMC has relaxed its language tests.
The number of nurses arriving to the UK from outside the EU increased by 80 per cent after adjustments were made in November 2017.
The move applied to nurses from both within the EU and the rest of the world, with Australians even struggling to pass.
Figures showed an average of 440 non-EU nurses joined the register each month between April and June, compared with an average of 237 a month in the previous nine months.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said: ‘Good communication between nurses, midwives and patients is of paramount importance to the safety and care of patients.
‘We are really pleased that the NMC continues to carefully progress reforms to the system of language testing, and believe these recommendations balance the need to protect the public with improved access for much-needed nursing talent.’
Professor Lisa Bayliss-Pratt, chief nurse at Health Education England, added: ‘HEE welcomes this announcement and will continue to support the NMC in ensuring the highest possible standards are achieved by the NHS workforce.’
Pressure is growing on the nursing profession and figures from NHS Improvement suggest that in England alone there are almost 42,000 job vacancies.
The nursing vacancy rates are up 17 per cent since the previous quarter, and 9 per cent from the same point last year.
The NHS recruitment crisis has become so bad that some parts of the country are only hiring one nurse for every 400 jobs advertised, NHS Digital statistics revealed in January.
It was also reported that 33,000 nurses quit in one year – an increase of 20 per cent since 2012 to 2013.
Tom Sandford, of the Royal College of Nursing, said the NHS Digital statistics painted a ‘bleak picture’.
‘The government must immediately investigate this sudden spike’, he said.
The NMC’s council will consider the proposals at a meeting on November 28.