Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is to recruit more than 600 nurses – mostly from the Philippines but also some from India – as an emergency measure to meet a critical shortage in Northern Ireland, it was announced on Monday.
The nurses cannot be found in the European Union, not because of Brexit but because there is also a shortage of trained staff on the Continent.
Across the UK as a whole there is a reported shortage of 40,000 nurses but in Northern Ireland, the shortfall is said to be 1,500 – 10 per, cent below capacity. Pegging nurses’ pay to 1 percent increases has aggravated the problem.
From hearsay and a single photograph, staff nurse Sabitha Nambiar has a mental picture of Antrim, in Northern Ireland. It is soon to be her home, and, in her mind, it is very much like Shillong – a hill station in Meghalaya, northeast India’s tea growing region with Victorian bungalows, the world’s wettest championship golf course and daily power cuts. All she knows for sure is the maths. In Britain, nurses earn in one year what in India takes them a decade.
Before her night shift, over sweet tea, the din of car horns and a monsoon downpour in central Delhi, Nambiar, 32, explains that the idea of working in Britain came from her cousin, a nurse who left India to work in a private nursing home. “My cousin in Surrey told me the experience is better than working in India,” she says. “There’s a higher standard of living. I also thought I’d benefit from mingling with different sorts of people. I’m totally ignorant about Ireland. I’m told it’s not like London. That it’s much slower. That it’s green and pleasant.”
Nambiar, who is planning to arrive in Antrim by the end of the year, is fast becoming the modern face of nursing in Britain. Four years ago a mere 30 Indian nurses were registered to work in the UK. Today more than 2,000 have registered. For the National Health Service (NHS), India is one of the main areas where it can poach health workers. Britain imports nurses because it does not have enough and because India, according to its government, has too many – more than 8 million today, against 3.8 million 10 years ago. The country also has an edge over many other developing nations; English is widely spoken and it has a “youth bulge”, with more than half the population under 30.
Nambiar, originally from Kerala, southern India, qualified in 1994 and has worked in private and state hospitals in Delhi for the past seven years. What does she know about the NHS? “I didn’t ask,” she says. “I don’t know anything about it.”
Anecdotally she hears that British hospital culture will involve more teamwork and more professional development. In India, Nambiar says, it can take 15 years for a staff nurse to be promoted to sister.
Getting to the UK is not easy. With guidance from her cousin, Nambiar jumped with relative ease the two crucial hurdles that enable Indian nurses to apply for jobs in Britain – provisional registration with the Nursing and Midwifery Council and achieving the necessary grade in an international English language test. She propelled herself to the required “good user” level by paying a private coach to tutor her for an hour every three days for three months, at a cost of almost half a month’s pay.
She knew she had to avoid crooked Indian recruitment agents, who, she heard from nursing friends, asked 200,000 rupees ($4,350) for non-existent or unqualified care work. “If I’m asked for money, I wouldnt be interested,” she says. ìIíve got a secure job here in a good hospital in the cap ital, working with experts in their field. I know that life in the UK is very expensive, so without a proper job things would be impossible.”