The proportion of NHS staff who are non-UK nationals has hit a record high of one in five, official figures show.
Of the almost 1.3 million hospital and community health staff in England, 20.4 per cent were non-UK nationals in September 2023, the workforce data showed. That is up from 13 per cent in September 2016 and 11.9 per cent in September 2009, when the data series began.
The proportions were higher among nurses, where it was three in 10 who were non-UK nationals, and among doctors, where non-UK nationals accounted for one-third of those working in the NHS.
The disclosure will fuel concerns about the NHS’s reliance on foreign staff and demands for more Government action to train up Britons to fill the roles.
It comes amid fears among Conservative MPs - particularly on the right of the party - that the surge in net migration to record levels will cost the party votes at the election later this year.
The NHS and social care sector are among the biggest drivers in the numbers of skilled foreign workers coming to the UK, although the Government is introducing curbs to prevent them bringing their dependents with them to the UK.
Miriam Cates, co-chair of the New Conservatives group of MPs, said: “These figures are astonishing and raise so many important questions. Why aren’t we training enough doctors and nurses here in the UK? Why aren’t British medics staying in the NHS after qualifying?
“Is there a productivity impact from such a large number of NHS staff having English as a second language and having been trained under different systems? Is it ethical to plug gaps in our healthcare workforce with doctors and nurses taken from countries much poorer than ours?
“We should be very grateful to those from other countries who come to the UK to work in the NHS, but this is clearly an unsustainable situation.”
Health chiefs said the figures reflected how the NHS depends on its “talented international workforce” to stop it “buckling under pressures” such as rising demand and strike action, but warned overseas recruitment could not fill vacancies forever.
Of the 335,763 full-time equivalent (FTE) nurses and health visitors in England in September 2023 whose nationality was known, three in 10 (30 per cent, or 100,776) were non-UK nationals, according to analysis by the PA news agency.
That is up from around two in 10 (19.7 per cent) three years earlier, in September 2020, and is the highest proportion since current data began in 2009. The most common non-UK nationality is Indian, accounting for 10.1 per cent, followed by Filipino (7.7 per cent), Nigerian (2.5 per cent) and Irish (1.1 per cent).
There has been a similarly sharp rise in the proportion of hospital and community health service doctors who are non-UK nationals, which now stands at more than a third of the total (36.3 per cent of 136,265 staff), up from around three in 10 (30.1 per cent) in 2020 and just over a quarter (26.6 per cent) in 2016.
Indian was again the most common non-UK nationality among this group, accounting for eight per cent of all doctors, followed by Pakistani (3.7 per cent), Egyptian (2.9 per cent) and Nigerian (2 per cent).
Lucina Rolewicz, a researcher at the independent think tank The Nuffield Trust, said the NHS has become “increasingly reliant on overseas recruitment to fill staffing gaps”, with international nurses proving “pivotal” to the Government meeting its 2019 pledge to increase the number of NHS nurses in England by 50,000.
She added: “This is far from a sustainable, long-term solution. The NHS is still competing with other health systems for overseas staff and in some cases our working conditions, pay and career prospects may look less favourable compared to other countries.”
The workforce plan, published in 2023, set out steps to recruit thousands more staff for the NHS in England over 15 years, with potentially an extra 60,000 doctors and 170,000 more nurses in place by 2036/37.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “Backed by £2.4 billion, the plan will double the number of medical school places, almost double the number of adult nurse training places, and increase the number of GP training places by 50% by 2031.
“Through these domestic training expansions, we expect around 10% of our workforce to be recruited internationally in 15 years’ time, compared to nearly a quarter today.”