THOUSANDS of nurses in the South West could be at risk of losing their jobs thanks to Brexit.

Recruitment problems already experienced by many NHS employers in the region could get worse with nurses currently working here potentially affected by changes to EU immigration rules after the referendum.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has published new research, based on data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, which shows that at least 1,571 nurses based in the Health Education South West area and a further 1,411 in the Health Education Wessex area - which includes, Dorset and South Wiltshire - identify themselves as being from an EU country, as of March 2016.

The figures show that many nurses from across Europe are working in the NHS across the South West region including 624 from Portugal, 930 from Spain, 343 from Italy and 395 from Ireland.

As not all staff choose to provide information on their nationality, it is likely that many more EU nurses are working here.

In addition, private sector health providers and care homes also rely on EU staff to deliver their services.

Separate figures obtained by the RCN from the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) show that there are currently over 33,000 EU trained nurses registered to work in the UK as a whole, with over 9,000 joining the register in 2015/16 – a 21 per cent increase on 2014/15.

These figures came ahead of a House of Lords debate last week on the impact of the vote to leave the EU on safe staffing levels in the NHS.

The Lords also debated other risks to the NHS workforce such as the government’s proposals to change student nurse funding.

The RCN is calling for the value of European nursing staff to be recognised and for the government to protect their futures.

Jeannett Martin, RCN South West regional director, said: “Many employers in the South West are struggling to recruit nurses and they rely on bringing in talent from abroad.

“It is vital that these valued colleagues are supported to stay in the region.

The problems employers face in the recruitment of nursing staff is the result of a sustained lack of investment in training new nurses and years of pay restraint. “Plans to change student funding and question marks over our future relationship with the EU place an additional, unacceptable pressure on the NHS.

“What is needed is a sensible strategy for workforce planning for the future that recognises the critical contribution of overseas nurses as well as the pressing need to educate, recruit and retain a home grown nursing workforce.

“We will do everything we can to support our internationally recruited nurse members through this time and would urge any members with concerns to contact us directly (RCNDirect is 0345 7726100).”