The number of EU nurses and midwives wanting to work in the UK is continuing to fall, with new figures showing a 67% rise in the number leaving the register in the past year.
The overall number leaving the profession has risen by 13% in the last 12 months, the figures from the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) show.
Between October 2016 and September 2017, 35,363 left the register – up from 31,178 in the previous 12 months.
UK-born nurses make up the greatest proportion of those leaving, rising by 9% from 26,653 last year to 29,019 this year.
But EU nurses saw a much greater increase. A total of 4,067 EU of them left this year, compared to 2,435 between October 2015 and September 2016, the figures show.
The NMC described the data as “worrying”, prompting fears that the NHS is facing “major challenges” to retain staff.
NMC figures show that since last year’s Brexit vote, there has been a sharp drop in the numbers joining the profession from the continent.
Meanwhile, the numbers joining from the EU as Brexit looms has nosedived – down 89% from 10,178 last year to 1,107 this year, according to the NMC.
EU workers currently make up 5% of the NMC’s register.
Jackie Smith, chief executive and registrar of the Nursing and Midwifery Council, said: “It’s worrying that we are seeing a continuing rise in nurses and midwives leaving the register and our data is clear that this is being driven by both UK and EU registrants.
“These figures continue to highlight the major challenges faced by the UK’s health and care sectors around the recruitment and retention of staff. Nurses and midwives work incredibly hard in very difficult circumstances. Those responsible for workforce matters will no doubt respond to what these trends are showing.”
But the Government said it represented a minuscule decrease in overall staffing numbers.
The Department of Health pointed to figures showing that 357 more nurses are working on wards this year compared to last year and a further 52,000 are in training.
Attempting to ease concerns about the impact Brexit could have on staffing numbers, it added that 3,193 more EU nationals are working in the NHS than at the time of the referendum in June 2016.
A spokeswoman said: “These figures represent a mere 0.2% decrease in the 689, 738 nurses and midwives currently registered with the NMC and there are in fact more nurses on our wards since last year.
“We are fully committed to supporting hardworking NHS staff through helping them to balance work-life commitments and we are also ensuring the NHS has the staff it needs for the future through our 25% increase in nurse training places – the biggest in the history of the NHS.”
Unions responded to the findings by calling for a pay rise to encourage staff to stay.
Unite head of health Sarah Carpenter said: “The disturbing NMC findings are further evidence, if more were needed, that the NHS needs a massive cash injection, with a large tranche earmarked for a generous pay rise for staff.
“The NHS has been buffeted by austerity-driven cuts and services are at breaking point – since 2010 the majority of the NHS workforce has seen their pay packets eroded by at least 14% in real terms.
“This is not the time for the chancellor to indulge in clever accounting tricks linked to so-called ‘productivity’ savings. This is the final wake-up call on NHS pay to staunch the rapidly increasing exodus of highly skilled staff.”