Four in five extra nurses recruited in the last year are from abroad, according to new figures which sparked warnings that the NHS has become “astonishingly over-reliant” on foreign labour.
Nurse leaders accused hospitals of “panic-buying” overseas workers at great expense to plug staff shortages, while patients groups raised fears that care is being compromised by nurses with poor command of English.
It comes as separate figures show almost one in 10 council houses is now occupied by those from abroad.
Data from every NHS hospital trust in the country shows 5,778 nurses were recruited from overseas over the last year, with the largest numbers coming from Spain, Portugal, the Phillipines and Italy.
The figure makes up 81 per cent of extra nurses hired in England over the period, as hospital trusts rushed to hire more staff after widespread shortages were exposed in the wake of the Mid-Staffs scandal.
The investigation by Health Service Journal found that in the 12 months ending in September, 73 per cent of NHS hospital trusts recruited staff from abroad, compared with 38 per cent the year before.
Experts said a lack of trained British nurses meant hospitals were forced to hunt abroad for trained staff, with the costs of global trawls vastly inflating the cost of recruitment.
Hospitals pay managers and recruitment agencies to go abroad to seek out staff, while offering bonuses to nurses who come here.
In total, 91,470 nurses – around one in seven of those now registered to work here – trained overseas, official figures show.
Dr Peter Carter, general secretary of the RCN said: “Overseas nurses have always made a valuable contribution to the NHS, but these figures show an astonishing over-reliance.
“The NHS has spent year upon year failing to invest in training UK nurses, leaving posts vacant and trying to manage with too few staff. The last few years have seen real “panic-buying” of nurses from wherever they can be found, in order to keep care safe.”
He said the NHS needed to draw up a long term plan to maintain safe staffing levels, instead of “papering over the cracks”.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said too many nurses were recruited despite poor language skills and a lack of understanding of NHS procedures.
“If we do employ nurses from other countries, we must ensure that they are fully qualified and competent to carry out their duties and that they are competent enough in English to effectively communicate with patients,” she said.
“We are concerned that poor English skills may lead to mistakes and misunderstandings when patients are trying to explain their problems.”
The charity called for more investment and recruitment of UK nurses.