NURSING chiefs have warned of a severe shortage of new recruits – at a time when the NHS needs them most.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said more than one in 20 nursing posts in England was vacant, with many hospitals desperately trying to increase staffing levels.

East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust had around 140 vacant posts last month and has been forced to look abroad to help fill positions.

Ten nurses are being drafted in from Portugal, with another coming in from Italy.

The vacancy rate for all staff across the trust is just above six per cent.

The RCN said many hospitals have held posts vacant to meet savings targets, but have recently started recruiting amid concerns about staffing levels across the NHS.

Steve Flanagan, regional director for the union, said: “We sit on the verge of a hidden workforce crisis. We know many trusts across the North West are down to the bone in terms of the number of frontline nursing staff. They have frozen posts and cut back in order to save money.

“Nearly 20,000 full-time vacancies across hospitals in England, and at least 1,652 in the North West, means that the scale of understaffing is much more severe than we’ve been led to believe.”.

He pointed out that understaffing featured heavily in the report by NHS chief Sir Bruce Keogh, published in July, which made wide-ranging criticisms of East Lancs hospitals.

Bosses at the Royal Blackburn and Burnley General hospitals have since recruited more than 60 nurses and healthcare assistants, as a direct response to that report.

Victoria Robinson, head of recruitment at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “The trust has been increasing its nurse staffing levels since August 2013. We are recruiting full time, band five staff nurses – 93 are now in the latter stages of the recruitment process and 30 vacancies are still available.

“The trust will shortly be launching a social media recruitment campaign to attract applications from across the UK and I would encourage registered nurses who want a new challenge and a commitment to their development to apply for vacancies now at”