450 international nurses hired in Northern Ireland recruitment drive not yet on wards
Just over one fifth of more than 600 international nurses recruited by health chiefs two years ago are currently working on the wards in Northern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
The Department of Health embarked on an international recruitment drive for nurses in 2016 - at a cost understood to be in the region of £566,000 - to address the serious shortfall in numbers.
Over the past four years hundreds of nurses and midwives have left the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) register, including more than 500 in the first two quarters of 2017/18.
Currently there are more than 1,300 vacancies within Northern Ireland, with 532 in the Belfast Trust area alone.
Despite offering positions to 622 international nurses in 2016, only 127 are currently working on wards.
It will be four years after they were first recruited before the rest will be given a position - a year longer than it takes for a university student to achieve a degree in nursing.
Before any non-UK nurse can take up a position here, they must pass English language and clinical skills tests which are set by the Home Office.
Garrett Martin, deputy director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, described the 2016 recruitment drive as an "expensive" way to plug gaps left as a result of poor workforce planning.
Mr Martin said: "There was a naivety around the timescale predicted about how quickly they could get the nurses on the wards here.
"There are requirements by the regulatory body before a nurse can be registered in the UK - one of which is an English language test which has a considerably high failure rate and a clinical skills test and visa criteria - which all means it is a very, very slow problem.
"The opening of a clinical skills centre at the Magee campus of Ulster University four months ago - which is still only one of two places in the UK to offer this course - will help speed things up."
SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan said: "It was right that the department explored all possible options to address the serious shortfall in nurses, and having met with some of the nurses who are working in our hospitals there is no doubting their passion and commitment, given the significant sacrifices they have made to come here."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "To date, 127 new nurses, from the international recruitment exercise, are now working in wards across NI. The recruitment scheme is on target to deliver 622 nurses by March 2020, as planned.
"The department is looking forward to issuing an update on workforce issues, including nursing recruitment, later in the spring."