The NHS could face a shortage of up to 51,000 nurses after the Brexit transition – enough to staff 45 hospitals – a report has warned.

According to research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), the health and social care sectors ‘rely heavily’ on nurses from the EEA and beyond, but the health service in England is being threatened by a staff shortfall of between 5,000 and 10,000 nurses by 2021.

There were 41,722 vacancies in the NHS at the end of June, according to Brexit and the health & social care workforce in the UK, which was commissioned by the Cavendish Coalition.

However, the number of EEA nationals working in social care grew by 68% between 2011 and 2016.

Figures show that EEA recruits make up roughly 16% of dentists, 9% of doctors, 5% of the regulated nursing profession and 5% of allied health professionals in the UK.

But the Cavendish Coalition has warned that the future immigration system must have a clear pathway to attracting talented workers and nurses from the EU and beyond if services are to be adequately staffed after Brexit.

According to the report, a fall in applications to the Health and Care Professions Council for registration to practice in the UK has moved some private providers to shift their recruitment focus to outside of the EU.

Workforce planning after Brexit needs to recognise that ‘public, private and third sectors form a common system and common labour market’, the report said, and supply needs to be ‘sufficient to meet the whole system need and not focus solely on NHS employers.’

The Home Office should guarantee that its settled status programme for EU nationals will be honoured in the event of a no-deal Brexit to give workers assurances about their long-term rights to settle in the UK, the report recommended.

David Hare, chief executive of the NHS Partners Network (NHSPN), said: ‘Independent healthcare providers currently employ over 60,000 nurses but they are experiencing high vacancy rates given the recent drop in applications from nurses of all levels of experience.

‘We welcome today’s report which calls for an urgent review of health and care workforce planning to ensure it reflects the important role played by independent providers in delivering high quality patient care.

‘NHSPN is also supportive of the report’s appeals for any future immigration system to be responsive and agile, with as little red tape as possible, in order to meet the growing skills gaps in the health and care workforce,’ he added.

While there is expected to be provision for doctors and nurses entering the UK after Brexit, workforce problems continuing after the transition could have ‘significant implications’ for social care, the report said.

The sector relies on local authority funding on a per-case basis and faces a funding shortfall of £3.5bn by 2025, meaning it may not be able to cope with adjusting wages to tackle workforce shortages, the report warned.

Danny Mortimer, co-convenor of the coalition and chief executive of NHS Employers, said: ‘These startling figures should be taken extremely seriously by those negotiating our departure from the EU.

‘We know we need to do more ourselves to strengthen staff retention and reduce turnover, but we are also reliant on decisionmakers to ensure the UK remains an attractive prospect for our valued and talented colleagues from the EU and rest of the world.’

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We greatly value the contribution of nurses to the NHS and we hope those from the EU will take up the early opportunity to secure their future in the UK.

‘There are 11,900 more nurses on our wards since 2010, 52,000 nurses currently in NHS training and we have made more funding available to increase university training places.

‘Later this year we will also set out plans to reform the adult social care system to make it sustainable for the future, including how better to attract and retain staff.’