THE Royal College of Nurses (RCN) has set out a three-step plan to cure a shortage of qualified nurses – as one hospital trust welcomes 19 new recruits from Italy.

Bosses at County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust undertook an international recruitment drive in a bid to help fill nearly 200 nursing vacancies.

Nineteen nurses from Italy have now started an intensive four week induction programme with the trust and more are expected to follow suit over the next few months.

The RCN said overseas nurses made a “huge contribution” to the nursing workforce, but said safe staffing levels remained a concern across the region.

Noel Scanlon, executive director of nursing for County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust – which runs Darlington Memorial Hospital and the University Hospital of North Durham – said the 19 nurses complied with Nursing and Midwifery Council regulations for working in the UK.

He said: “We work very closely with local universities to recruit newly-qualified nurses and we have a rolling programme of recruitment within the UK. However, difficulties recruiting and a national shortages of qualified nurses has led us to look at alternative ways for filling posts.

“Our priority is to deliver safe, quality care to our patients and to do so in line with national recommendations for safe staffing levels. In past years, we have achieved this with a reliance on agency staffing.

“While agency staff provide us with a valuable service we recognise the benefits in terms of continuity of care for patients of having a more permanent workforce and there are obviously significant financial implications associated with using agency staff. All these factors led us to consider recruiting internationally.”

In Teesside, South Tees NHS Foundation Trust is advertising a number of nursing vacancies in areas including major trauma, oncology, haematology, gastroenterology and elderly care.

It recently said six per cent of nursing posts were vacant, compared to a ten per cent rate nationally.

Peta Clark, operational manager for the RCN Northern region, said: “There is a well-publicised shortage of nurses in the North-East and indeed the rest of the country.

“The long-term solution is three-fold. Firstly, we need to make sufficient nursing student places available at our local universities. Secondly, we need to ensure that potential students are not discouraged from applying for a three year nursing degree for financial reasons.

“And thirdly, we need to be able to retain our nursing workforce by ensuring that they do not become discouraged by pay and conditions which have become progressively less attractive as the Government has imposed a number of pay freezes and below inflation pay increases over the past six years.”

She said with understaffed and demoralised workforces, safe staffing become a problem. Another issue was trusts running significant financial deficits and being under pressure to cut costs.