AN EXODUS of nurses heading back to their European homeland after Britain’s decision to quit the EU has left Oxfordshire’s hospitals with an ‘extreme shortage’ of staff.

Chief executive of Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Bruno Holthof, highlighted the dire situation at the trust’s annual public meeting this week.

Problems recruiting and retaining staff because of the high cost of living in the area have also played their part in nursing and support staff falling by almost eight per cent since the referendum.

Speaking at the meeting on Wednesday evening Dr Holthof said there was a now ‘significant shortage’ of staff across the county.

He added: “We have had quite a lot of nurses from European countries going back to their country of origin – Spain, Portugal and other countries.

“We need to remind our European staff that the Government has made a commitment that any European staff working in the NHS will not be impacted by Brexit – although it has already had an impact.

“We are extremely short of people to care for our patients and this has an impact because you have to close beds.

“We need more people to take care of our patients and that’s a primary focus for us given the shortage.”

The trust, which runs the John Radcliffe Hospital and the Churchill Hospital in Oxford as well as the Horton General Hospital in Banbury, is currently trying to fill about 450 nursing vacancies.

Based on the latest NHS figures, as of June OUH employed 3,210 nurses and health visitors, whereas in April 2016, two months before the Brexit referendum, there were 3,485 – although it is not clear exactly how many have left directly because of Brexit.

Earlier this year the Government made the decision to relax immigration rules to allow more doctors and nurses from outside the EU into the UK with OUH now hoping to recruit hundreds of new nurses from countries such as India and the Philippines.

This approach has, however, also caused concern.

At the meeting on Wednesday, one member of the public said: “Going to places like India, Thailand, and the Philippines, where the health services are miles below ours – their need for those nurses is far greater.

“I dislike the idea that the British are resolving these problems at the expense of those people.”

OUH chief nurse Sam Foster, praised the ‘high calibre’ of nursing staff recruited from such countries and also said there was a foreign office requirement that British NHS trusts do not leave foreign health services depleted when recruiting from abroad.

About 62,000 EU citizens currently work for the National Health Service.

Accord to NHS Digital statistics, almost 10,000 EU workers had already left the NHS by last autumn.