Foreign nurses will be allowed to sit easier English language tests because failure rates are so high.
The existing test has been blamed for a sharp drop in recruitment, which has led to concerns about a major nursing shortfall across the NHS.
A hospital in Kent said last month that more than 90 per cent of Filipino nurses had failed the existing test, which require candidates to understand complex articles.
And in the nine months after the test was extended to EU nurses recruitment fell by 96 per cent.
Overseas medical staff will be able to take a less academic English test after the current one was blamed for a drop in recruitment
Under new rules issued by the nursing watchdog, overseas health staff will be allowed to take a less academic exam which is simpler to pass.
The move, which will come into force next month, applies to nurses from both within the EU and from the rest of the world.
The announcement follows warnings that the current exams are so strict they have led to a huge drop in the number of foreign nurses coming to the UK.
The NHS has become increasingly reliant on overseas nurses in recent years, after the number of nurse training posts in the UK was slashed.
Figures last week showed the number of nurses in the NHS has fallen by 1,000 in 12 months, the first drop in four years.
Experts blamed the decline on a sudden shortfall in overseas nurses, brought about by the difficult language tests.
Many hospitals have undertaken big recruitment drives in Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Philippines, hiring teams of up to 200 foreign nurses at a time.
But before nurses can join the official register – which allows them to work in the UK – they must score seven out of nine in a four-part exam.
This consists of speaking, listening, reading and writing components. Nurses are required to understand and explain complicated scientific articles as part of the tests.
The exams are so difficult that some Australian nurses have failed them despite English being their mother tongue.
Current tests require nurses to sit speaking, listening, reading and writing components and they are required to explain complicated scientific articles
Today’s announcement by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) follows a ‘stocktake’ of the system. The regulator was lobbied by hospital bosses and recruitment firms, who described the current tests as overly tough and an ‘own goal’.
From November 1, nurses from the EU or elsewhere in the world will be allowed to take the Occupational English Test, rather than the academic version of the International English Language Test System (IELTS).
The Occupational English Test is said to be easier for nurses to pass because it tests their knowledge of medical terms, with which they will be very familiar.
By contrast, the current IELTS exam requires them to have a much broader understanding of complex scientific terms.
The new rules will also mean that nurses from English-speaking countries, including Canada and Australia, will no longer be required to sit the exams. Instead, they will be allowed to prove they have worked for at least a year in an English-speaking country and previously passed an English language test.
The Royal College of Nursing said it would ‘firmly oppose’ any relaxation in standards ‘just to plug workforce gaps’.
A spokesman for the NMC insisted the tests were not being made easier nor watered down in any way.
The Royal College of Nursing has said it firmly opposes any relaxation in standards designed to plug workforce gaps
Jackie Smith, its chief executive, said: ‘Nurses and midwives trained outside the UK make up around 15 per cent of our register. They are vital to the delivery of health and care services across the UK.
‘By accepting alternative forms of evidence we are increasing the options available for nurses and midwives to demonstrate they have the necessary command of English to practise safely and effectively, without compromising patient safety.’
The existing tests were brought in for EU nurses in January 2016. Before that they did not have to sit any exams.
This was due to European Commission rules which stated that such tests would impede ‘freedom of movement’ of EU workers. The NMC argued that the lack of tests was putting patients at risk because nurses were being allowed on wards with inadequate English.
But in June, the NMC’s figures showed the number of EU nurses registering had fallen from 1,306 in July 2016 to only 46 in April this year.
The tests have been in place for nurses from outside of the EU for the last 11 years, but managers claim they have become progressively tougher in the last few years.
Last month the Medway Maritime Hospital in Kent revealed that 90 per cent of a group of 200 Filipino nurses had failed the exams despite their English being very good.
The intake of student nurses fell by 20 per cent in three years, from 20,829 in 2009/10 to 17,219 in 2012/13, but the Government has reversed the trend and there are now just under 20,000 places.
A spokesman for the Royal College of Nursing said: ‘The NHS is struggling to recruit overseas nurses but we would firmly oppose any change just to plug workforce gaps. It must be robust and command the confidence of the public.’