The Department of Health has been criticised over a shortage of nurses and told to “get its act together”, by government advisers.
The Migration Advisory Committee also accused the health sector of seeing immigration as a “get-out-of-jail-free-card” and an answer to the shortage.
The lack of nurses is down to factors “which could and should have been anticipated”, it said.
The government said it planned to train more “home-grown nurses”.
The latest report from the committee, despite being highly critical, has “reluctantly” recommended that nurses from outside Europe should be made a priority for up to 5,000 visas to work in the UK each year, for the next three years.
This extends a measure which was introduced last autumn, recognising that the UK is short of nurses, and nursing remains on the official “shortage occupation list”.
However, the committee’s report criticised the decision to cut nurse training places in England by almost a fifth between 2009 and 2013.
Its chairman Prof Sir David Metcalf said: “There is no good reason why the supply of nurses cannot be sourced domestically.
“There seems to be an automatic presumption that non-EEA skilled migration provides the health and care sector with a ‘get-out-of-jail-free-card’.
“The long-term solution to addressing this shortage is recruiting and retaining staff by providing sufficient incentive and opportunity.”
In England 11,000 nurses from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) are set to be recruited over the next four years, and the figure rises to 14,000 when the rest of the UK is factored in, the report said.
It also highlighted a number of other issues, which it believed were linked to the wider nursing shortage. They included:
- Pay – The median pay for nurses is £31,500 – which is £7,500 below the median pay in other graduate occupations.
- Retention – The nurse turnover rate was 7.8% in 2008-9 but jumped to 9.3% in 2014-15. There has also been a “noticeable spike” in nurses retiring at 55 – the earliest age at which a nurse can retire on full NHS pension benefits.
- Population growth and rising life expectancy increases demand
- The Francis Report in the wake of the Mid-Staffs scandal recommended higher nurse-to-patient ratios
The other major area of contention is around training, and Chancellor George Osborne’s decision in his 2015 Spending Review to scrap nursing bursaries and replace them with loans.
Currently student nurses and midwives receive an annual bursary from the NHS while they study – which they do not have to pay back. They also do not have to pay tuition fees.
However, Mr Osborne argues that because the NHS can spend only a finite amount of money on bursaries each year, it limits the number of places available for students.
He says replacing bursaries with loans will give more people the opportunity to study.
Conversely, the Royal College of Nursing argues a fear of debt will put people off training.
A Department of Health spokesman added: “Overseas staff have always played a vital role in the NHS.
“We are pleased the [committee]has recommended that nurses remain on the occupation shortage list, but at the same time, we are already delivering our plan to train more home-grown nurses.”
In 2014-15 8,000 foreign-born nurses were recruited in to the NHS, mainly from Europe.