Malta is bracing itself for an exodus of foreign nurses who are being poached by the UK as part of its efforts to control its spiralling COVID-19 situation.

Sources close to the profession said around 140 nurses have either already resigned or are in the process of submitting their resignations as they are lured away from Malta with more favourable working conditions and a better remuneration package. That is around 22 per cent of the estimated 600 third-country national nurses who work in Malta.

The health authorities began to see the trend towards the end of 2020 when they suddenly received a number of long leave applications for February and March.

Reasons for the applications varied from health problems in family to marriage issues, but the authorities soon realised there was an attempt to utilise all of the year’s leave and not return to Malta.

Sources said nursing recruitment agencies in the UK and Northern Ireland have been head-hunting Indian, Pakistani and Filipino nurses currently working in the Maltese healthcare system as well as those working in homes for the elderly.  

Around 15% of nurses working in Malta are third-country nationals, mainly hailing from India and Pakistan.

They work at Mater Dei Hospital, Mount Carmel Psychiatric Hospital, Karin Grech Rehabilitation Hospital and St Vincent de Paul, Malta’s largest home for the elderly. There are also a number of foreign nurses working for government and private homes.

Losing 15% of the nursing workforce will literally bring the health service to a standstill

The UK has been overwhelmed with the coronavirus, with Europe’s worst death rate, a large number of sick patients but also nurses who were either infected or who had to quarantine after becoming exposed. This led the UK government to look beyond its shores as an alternative to recruit nurses as soon as possible.

Aside from Ireland, Malta is the only country in the EU to have English as an official language and a healthcare system similar to the UK’s. In the last few weeks nursing recruitment agencies launched a direct poaching exercise.

It was encouraged by the UK nursing regulatory body, which even renounced the need for any language certificates for nurses coming from Malta. This had previously been a prerequisite for third-country nationals wishing to work in the UK. 

The nurses were offered a starting basic salary of £32,000 (€36,000) compared to the current Malta salary of €18,722 for diploma nurses and €21,000 for degree nurses.

The nurses were also being offered full citizenship for them and their spouses and children for the first few months with the promise of a short, less bureaucratic process for work and citizenship applications. Moreover, the UK government has agreed to provide nurses who opt to move to the UK with free accommodation for the first 12 months.

The predicament was confirmed by Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses president Paul Pace, who said the union was “very concerned” that the current long-lasting shortage of nurses will worsen overnight.

“The union is very concerned about the exodus of foreign nurses from Malta to Ireland and the UK. While this exodus is also evident to the health division management, no steps are being taken to address it,” he said, when contacted.

Pace warned the resignations are just the beginning since this exodus is likely to continue throughout the year bringing the shortage of nursing in Malta to “an extremely critical level”.

“The present nursing workforce is already working with heavy workloads with none of the wards in Malta and Gozo having the agreed nursing complement. Losing 15 per cent of the nursing workforce will literally bring the health service to a standstill and will increase even further the hardship on the existing nursing workforce,” Pace added.

Asked about the matter, a spokeswoman for the health ministry skirted the issue, saying that throughout 2020, around 80 nurses had resigned, many of whom were Maltese nationals. She said around nine per cent of nurses are third-country nationals and that Malta has an open application for the recruitment of more nurses.

Since March, 109 third-country nationals were recruited.

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