The Daily Mail’s xenophobia against overseas nurses

Thanks to Tim Fenton for (a) pointing out the Daily Mail stoking bigotry against nurses who come from overseas to work in the NHS and (b) providing a link I could use that won’t boost their online advertising. Today’s Fail front page screams, “4 IN 5 NEW NURSES ON NHS WARDS ARE FOREIGN”. Filthy foreigners, coming over here, healing sick people.

As is usually the case with such Mail headlines, the report is a mix of empty assertions, half-truths and dogwhistle politics that stoke up racism.

It pains me to quote the Mail, so instead I’ll quote Fenton’s parsing of the story.

Ah well. All those Daily Mail readers are having the idea fed to them that the new nurses can’t speak English. Or that they can’t speak it very well: “Mail investigation found nurses picked up at recruitment fairs in Portugal struggled to fill out basic forms and needed a translation service … Legal loophole prevents the Nursing and Midwifery Council checking the English of European nurses before they are registered for NHS work” hint the sub-headings.
Yes, they went to Portugal and just “picked up” staff. That means it’s like all those migrant workers queuing for minibuses somewhere in North London. The inference is that Brits are excluded and some kind of people trafficking operation is going on. It isn’t, and, as so often with the Mail, the copy doesn’t support the headline.

The influx of foreign nurses “has sparked fears that some nurses will lack the English language skills to do their jobs properly”. One concerned talking head said “We are concerned that poor English skills may lead to mistakes and misunderstandings when patients are trying to explain their problems”. The Mail asserts “there is a suspicion that some turn a blind eye to poor results”.

As Fenton rightly points out, all this language of “has sparked fears” and “there is a suspicion that” is another way of saying, “We don’t have any evidence for this, but we’ll suggest it anyway.”

There’s one claim that could be considered factual – “Legal loophole prevents the Nursing and Midwifery Council checking the English of European nurses before they are registered for NHS work.” But as is so often the case, the Mail is sinning by omission. Here’s what the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s Registering as a Nurse or Midwife in the UK: For applicants trained within the EU or EEA actually says.

Under EU law, the NMC cannot require evidence of your ability to communicate in English for the purposes of registration. However, you need to make sure that you have sufficient knowledge of English in order to practise professionally (article 53 of the directive). Employers will expect this and have the right to require evidence of English language competence to ensure that they employ nurses and midwives who are able to communicate effectively. Therefore it is possible that any offer of employment in the UK may depend upon you being able to demonstrate competence in the English language through a test.

We strongly advise you to make use of the Europass Language Passport. This is a self assessment tool that enables you to assess your proficiency in understanding, speaking and writing any European language. Employers in the UK will expect that you will be proficient at level C1. You can find all the information about the Europass Language Passport at

So, yes it is true that an EU nurse who struggled with English could register here in Britain, but they wouldn’t get an actual job. Assuming it’s accurate that Portugese nurses were struggling with basic forms at a recruitment fair, how would they manage when they went to the job interview? Probably so badly that they wouldn’t be hired.

I’ve worked with plenty of nurses (and doctors) who have come from overseas to the UK to work, and you know what? Every one of them spoke excellent English. For a large proportion of them, EU law wouldn’t have applied to them anyway, because they came from non-EU countries like India and the Phillipines. For those coming from outside the EU, the rules are even stricter.

Applicants must be able to show that they can communicate clearly and effectively in English. They must complete the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and achieve a minimum score of at least seven in all areas. There are no exceptions to this requirement, even if English is their first language.

We will verify the scores with the IELTS organisation. Please note that we will not accept IELTS test results that are more than two years old at the time the registration application is submitted.

Fenton ends his takedown of the Mail story with a swipe at their editor.

Paul Dacre, of course, doesn’t give a stuff about the NHS. He goes private.

I don’t doubt it, though that won’t save Dacre from the indignity of having his life saved by Johnny Foreigner. Private healthcare providers in the UK also make extensive use of overseas nurses. And they’re just as good as the ones who work in the NHS.

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