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‘Stupid’ and ‘wrong’ for NHS to compete for overseas nurses, claims health minister

Published on: 5 Oct 2021

A new health minister has said NHS efforts to compete to attract overseas nurses are ‘stupid’, despite the approach being government policy.

Gillian Keegan also said that hiring nurses from overseas was “bizarre, unbelievably inefficient and also wrong”.

Ms Keegan became a health minister last month, with responsibilities including social care, mental health and integration. Before becoming an MP in 2017 she served as a governor of Western Sussex Hospital Foundation Trust.

She was speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative party conference on Tuesday organised by Age UK. Ms Keegan – who was previously apprenticeship and skills minister – was asked about the impact of Brexit on the health and care workforce. Her answer focused mostly on nursing. 

She said: “One of the things I found interesting when I first became an NHS board governor, [was that at] the very first meeting I’d been to, they’d all just come back from the Philippines. This is in Chichester, I was thinking, ‘What are you doing in the Philippines?’ They said, ‘We were recruiting nurses’, and I said, ‘What are you doing there recruiting nurses?’

“They said, ‘Well, we’ve already depleted the availability of the Spanish and the Portuguese nurses.’ I said, ‘What about, you know, people who are here who would love to go into this profession? And it struck me as just bizarre – unbelievably inefficient and also wrong and just bizarre.

“A couple of weeks later I was in Tokyo [with my husband]… I met the health minister and he said to me, ‘We’ve just come back from the Philippines. We’re recruiting all our nurses from the Philippines.’

“‘I thought, ‘Jesus, we’ve got Tokyo and Chichester competing for the Filipino nurse population, how stupid is that?’”

The 2019 Conservative manifesto committed a Tory government to increasing the nursing workforce by 50,000 between 2019 and 2024. International recruits were due to make up the largest chunk of that total. NHS modelling said there would be 12,500 international nurses recruited over the period. Health Education England had been working on the assumption that the NHS would recruit an average of 2,500 overseas nurses each year – though this has now been heavily set back by covid.

A report by the Nuffield Trust published this week pointed out that domestic training would take too long to fill short-term gaps, and that international recruitment was cheaper in the medium term than using domestically trained agency staff.

Ms Keegan continued: ”I put a lot of effort in when I first became apprenticeships and skills minister into making sure we had all the apprenticeship models. They are a fabulous model, first of all for providing kids with opportunity that they don’t normally get, and secondly adults to retrain later on if they want a second career and many people want a second career in this area.

“We’ve now got 17 apprenticeship different routes in, and nursing apprenticeship starts from being zero are now [up to] being 18,000 this year. That’s what we should be doing.”

She also said employers needed to value and retain staff, criticised those who don’t “act strategically to attract the talent – and it’s not always about pay actually — mostly you want to feel that you love your job, you’ve got purpose, it’s really appreciated, you’re recognised”.

Ms Keegan also said care workers skills were under-recognised, calling for “professionalisation” of the workforce, and criticised low-pay and “zero hours contract” employment.