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The total number of people starting NHS apprenticeships has fallen by more than a third in the past three years, raising new concerns about shortages of key staff such as nurses after Brexit.

The promise was 1,000 trainee nurses a year, but data shows a serious shortfall for registered and nursing associate programmes.

Despite ministerial pledges to plug recruitment gaps with the help of 1,000 apprentice nurses a year, the official data also shows that in January 2018 just 20 apprentices started the registered nurse degree apprenticeship while just 10 people signed up for new “nursing associate” training in the same period.

Record numbers of nurses and midwives from other EU countries quit Britain last year, fuelling fears that a Brexit ‘brain drain’ would leave the NHS severely short of staff.

A total of 3,962 such staff from the European Economic Area (EEA) left the Nursing and Midwifery Council register between 2017 and 2018. This was 28% more than the 3,081 who left in 2016-17. The number of EU nurses applying to work in the UK fell by 96% in the 12 months following the Brexit vote, from 1,304 to 46.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt set out plans last year to address the recruitment problem, suggesting that 2,500 homegrown nursing “associate apprenticeships” would be in place by April this year.

Announcing the apprenticeship scheme in 2016, Hunt said: “Nurses are the lifeblood of our NHS but the routes to a nursing degree currently shut out some of the most caring, compassionate staff in our country… Not everyone wants to study full-time at university, so by creating hundreds of new apprentice nurses, we can help healthcare assistants and others reach their potential as a fully trained nurse”.

But ministers have admitted that only 1,018 had started by that date – a shortfall of over 60%.

Overall, the government had a target of recruiting 100,000 NHS apprentices by 2020. Based on the latest data, Labour says this target will be missed by over 26,000 places.

The Royal College of Nursing says there are 42,000 vacancies across the NHS in nursing, with the staff recruitment crisis made more acute by low morale and poor staff retention.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “There are over 1,000 nursing associate apprentices already in training, and Health Education England fully expects the remaining apprentices to start later this year, with many of those starts scheduled for the autumn.

“Following the success of the first year of the pilot programme, the health and social care secretary announced plans to expand this figure so that up to 5,000 nursing associates will be trained through the apprentice route in 2018, and up to 7,500 in 2019.”

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