Before the coronavirus outbreak the NHS had around 40,000 vacancies for registered nurses and the government has committed to having 50,000 more full-time equivalent nurses working in the NHS by April 2024.
Applications to study nursing at university has jumped by 15 per cent in a year, according to the latest data.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, or UCAS, said the number of applicants had reached 58,550.
It follows a huge surge in interest in joining the NHS after the coronavirus outbreak has shone a spotlight on the role of frontline nurses and doctors.
Universities have come under pressure from NHS England’ chief executive Sir Simon Stevens to open up more places and accept more applicants to study as part of efforts to boost the nursing workforce.
UCAS said the number of new nursing applicants that had applied to study since January was 63 per cent higher than the same period last year with 12,840 applicants compared to just 7,880 in 2019.
Despite the increase in applicants the Royal College of Nursing warned there was still a long way to go before the government would hit its target.
Mike Adams, RCN director for England said: ““To get anywhere close to the government’s commitment of 50,000 more nurses in the NHS in England alone by the end of this Parliament, we need a much larger increase than what we have seen today.
“Application numbers for the nursing degree in England have reduced by 17.4 per cent since 2016, the final year of the bursary. This means even if all of the latest applications are turned into acceptances and ultimately registered nurses the large workforce gap will still not close.”
The RCN is calling for the government to aim for an over-supply of nurses and said ministers should wipe-off the debt of students who had joined the workforce during the pandemic.
In 2015, the then Chancellor George Osborne scrapped the bursary on nurse training places and replaced it with a student loan system. While this meant universities were no long limited in the number of places they could offer, students had to pay.
In the final year of the bursary, in 2016, the number of applications to study nurses hit a high of 66,000.
In December the government announced new funding for student nurses who will receive a £5,000 grant they don’t have to pay back.
While the numbers of nurses employed in the NHS has hit record levels it has not grown at the same pace as demand from patients with many hospitals suffering staff shortages which can impact on patients.
Earlier this week the Nursing and Midwifery Council said the numbers of nurses on its register had jumped to the largest ever level at 716,000 nurses, midwives and nursing associates,
Mark Dayan, from the Nuffield Trust thinktank warned: “These gains could be a false dawn. Not least because of the overwhelming burden on health and care staff as the country battles through the coronavirus pandemic. International staff might look more askance at the UK if it seems to have let a disproportionate number of BAME workers die from the disease.
“The other great challenge is keeping people wanting to work in the service. Even before the pandemic, the pressure and the toll on the mental health of staff was propelling people to leave the service. Covid-19 has emphasised many of these issues, and staff will continue to weigh up the benefits vs the pay, reward and working environment they will face.”