Any significant cut in the number of overseas staff working in the NHS in the next few years is likely to have a “serious and damaging impact” on services, NHS Providers is warning.

A new report by the organisation has slammed the “slow, disjointed, response” from the Department of Health and arms-length bodies to the NHS’ spiralling workforce challenges, and calls for “urgent steps to ease intolerable pressures on front line staff”.

It also stresses that an NHS workforce fit to meet the growing and changing needs of the population must be developed, on the back of survey results showing that 66 percent of trust leaders said staff concerns “were the most pressing challenge in delivering high quality care”.

In the survey of NHS mental health, community, ambulance and hospital trusts, to which 51 percent of chairs and chief executives responded, the vast majority (85 percent) said it is would be important to recruit from outside the UK in the next three years.

In other findings, 30 percent said Brexit is the main barrier to recruitment from outside the UK over the next three years, while 60 percent of trust chairs and chief executives cited work pressure and 38 percent pay and reward as the biggest challenges to recruitment and retention in their own trusts.

Also of note, 90 percent were doubtful that approaches taken by the Department of Health and its arms length bodies would help them to recruit and retain the staff they needed, and yet the growing workforce gap is already harming the quality of patient care, the report stressed.

One chief executive of an acute trust was cited as saying: “In some area of workforce we only have one third of the workforce in substantive posts.  In particular services people are leaving because the pressure is so great, they are unable to cope,” while another noted: “Sustainable staffing is the greatest challenge facing my organisation. I have no real sense that the scale of the challenge is truly understood nationally”.

NHS Providers is calling on the government to “urgently confirm the right to remain for the 60,000 EU staff working in the NHS,” and commit to a future immigration policy “that allows trusts to fill posts that cannot be taken – at least for the time being - by the domestic workforce”.

Other recommendations in the There for us: a better future for the NHS workforce report include “a clear-sighted” strategy to develop the health and care workforce with skills to meet growing and changing needs, greater clarity on the timetable to grow the domestic supply of clinical staff, and the establishment of an international recruitment programme that trusts can opt into.

“The staff and skills shortages we now see reflect a fundamental failure at national level on workforce strategy. We don’t have enough staff with the right skills and we’re asking far too much of our existing staff,” said Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers. “NHS trust leaders are telling us there are no quick fixes to improve the supply of UK-trained staff, and the outlook for international recruitment is uncertain.

“A better future for the NHS workforce is within our grasp, but we need a commitment from government and national bodies, first to recognise the gravity and urgency of the challenges we face, and then to act.”

The government has already promised to address the workforce shortage with pledges that include training 5,000 more nurses a year and a 25% rise in medical student places.

But Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, was reported by The Independent as saying that such recruitment drives “must be accompanied by a renewed effort to ensure that we correct the chaos in workforce planning and have a plan to train and retain adequate numbers of home grown doctors in the UK to meet the needs of our population.”