The NHS is facing such a chronic shortage of homegrown nurses that four out of five new nurses in hospitals have come from abroad, new health service data shows.

Overseas recruitment of nurses has more than quadrupled in a year, underlying the extent of the difficulty hospitals are encountering in their efforts to boost nurse numbers.

A new analysis of 140 English acute hospital trusts’ nurse recruitment shows that in the year to September, 103 of them hired a combined total of 5,778 nurses from abroad – a big increase on the 1,360 nurses employed from outside the UK by the 40 of 105 trusts that provided figures in 2012-13.

Fourteen of the 103 trusts each recruited more than 100 nurses from abroad in 2013-14 with one, King’s College Hospital foundation trust in London, hiring 276 in all.

Spain, Portugal and the Philippines were the countries trusts hired most nurses from – they provided more than 3,700 (64%) between them.

A leading expert in nursing workforce policy said the increasing recruitment from overseas was merely a “band aid” to the major problem of understaffing.

Prof Jane Ball, a principal research fellow at Southampton University, said: “This shows we are in a serious shortage of nurses and it is a shortage that has been waiting to be realised; it is not new or sudden.

“This is about uncovering what has been a growing, deepening problem that the NHS decided not to focus on because of financial pressures and other challenges.” Hiring more and more nurses from abroad was “such a short-term stop-gap and so inefficient”, Ball said.

Research by the Health Service Journal revealed that 107 (76%) of the 140 trusts increased the total number of nurses they employed between 2013 and 2014.

Ball said the Francis inquiry in February 2013 into the Mid Staffs scandal, which found close links between wards having too few staff and patients receiving poor care, “was a catalyst to uncover what had been until then a more hidden problem”, prompting an NHS-wide drive to hire more staff.

Guidance on safe staffing issued earlier this year by the National Institute of Care and Health Excellence encouraged trusts to increase their nurse numbers.

The Guardian
Denis Campbell, health correspondent