Nursing union demands Government support to tackle ‘rapidly deteriorating’ recruitment numbers

RCN's General Secretary and Chief Executive says she is "deeply concerned" at the state of nurse recruitment in the UK.

Emily Sergeant Emily Sergeant - 16th February 2024

The UK’s leading nursing union is demanding the Government provides a support package to help tackle “rapidly deteriorating” recruitment numbers.

With the upcoming March Budget announcement merely a few weeks away now, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has penned a hard-hitting letter to Health Secretary Victoria Atkins calling for “urgent action” to address what it claims has been a significantly “large fall” in applicants to nursing degree courses in England.

The RCN says the Government “must” introduce an emergency package of measures to support nurse recruitment in the next Budget on 6 March.

The union‘s calls comes after new official figures from UCAS were released yesterday (15 February), which show a further sharp drop in applicants to nursing courses for the next academic year, all despite the Government’s Long Term Workforce Plan for the NHS.

The UCAS figures revealed there were just 24,680 nursing applicants to education providers in England this year, compared to 27,370 applicants in 2023, and 33,410 in 2022 – which represents a 10% fall in the last year, and a 26% fall in the last two years, according to the RCN.


Because of these declining application numbers, the Union is now warning that it leaves the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan “in danger of falling off course”.

It also poses “a direct threat to the sustainability of the NHS and patient safety”, the RCN claims.


The RCN says the fall in recruitment is underlined by a collapse in the number of mature students from the UK applying for nursing degrees offered by education providers in England, with this number having fallen by 11% in just one year, and has continued to trend downwards by falling from 18,980 in 2021, to 11,190 in 2024.

“Historically, many have chosen nursing as a second career,” the RCN explained in its letter to the Government urging support measures.

RCN’s General Secretary and Chief Executive, Pat Cullen, said she is “deeply concerned” about the “rapidly deteriorating state of nurse recruitment” in her letter to the Health Secretary this week, and added that a failure to address these “critical issues” will eventually leave the health care system “dangerously understaffed” and “unable to meet the growing demands of patients”.


Ms Cullen continued in her letter: “These latest figures expose a widening gap between the aspirations of the plan and the level of political effort required to make them a reality.

“This needs immediate intervention and corrective action to protect patients now and in the future.  

“A decline in applicants risks causing a cascading effect, with fewer students accepted onto nursing courses leading to diminished course cohorts and eventually lower numbers graduating and becoming registered nurses, so the UK Government must recognise the severity of this emergency.

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“Immediate action must be taken to prevent further decline in nursing recruitment.

“We believe the current situation poses a direct threat to the sustainability of the NHS and patient safety, considering the existing 10.3% vacancy rate in nursing positions within the NHS in England.”

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