Care homes and home care agencies in North Wales are facing a massive crisis with an estimated shortfall of 7,000 staff by the year 2026.

That’s the grim warning from Care Forum Wales which represents the country’s private care providers.

Chairman Mario Kreft revealed that the prospect of Brexit and barriers to overseas recruitment are already exacerbating a severe shortage of nurses and carers.

It was also leading to loss of nursing home beds and the closure of care homes at a time when the number of over-85s in Wales is expected to more than double in the next 20 years.

According to Mr Kreft, some nursing homes across Wales were now teetering on the brink of closure because the finances don’t stack up.

The latest available figures from the Care and Social Services Inspectorate show there has already been a loss of 423 places in Wales for people requiring 24-hour care over the past three years.

The problem has been described as a perfect storm by Mr Kreft who is calling for urgent action to tackle the problem.

The dire shortage of nurses was forcing nursing homes across Wales to either close or de-register the nursing beds.

As a consequence, more elderly people were being stranded in hospital because of delays in discharging back home with support from domiciliary care agencies or into a care home or nursing home.

The issue was highlighted in a recent report from Healthcare Inspectorate Wales which uncovered a "disjointed" and "fragmented" process of discharging patients from hospital.

The estimated shortfall in Wales mirrors a study which showed that Brexit will leave England will be short of 380,000 carers by 2026.

According to the think tank Global Future, the only answer would be to strike a deal to guarantee the free movement of staff from EU countries upon which the sector relies.

A nursing home must have a qualified nurse on duty at all times and current shortage means that shifts are often being covered by agency nurses who cost up to £40 to £50 an hour and more during Bank Holidays.

The problem is most acute in rural areas of Wales where small nursing homes often serve wide areas of the local community.

Mr Kreft said: “The demand for nursing home beds has never been higher at a time when the shortage of nurses in the care sector has never been more acute.

“The problems in recruiting staff to work in domiciliary care is now at crisis point in some parts of Wales.

“The number of over-85s is going to more than double in the next 20 years and we can’t even train enough new nurses to replace the ones who are retiring.

“At the same time we are putting up barriers to nurses from Europe and the rest of the world coming here to work.

“Brexit is a factor but there are a whole raft of things, nursing training is one of them and we would question the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s requirement for a high, academic standard of English.

“All in all it goes to make up the perfect storm of problems for the care sector.

“This is worst in rural areas where smaller homes can’t make the economies of scale that larger homes can and so they are closing because they haven’t got enough nurses.

“It is the small community nursing homes in rural communities that are under real pressure and once they close they will never come back and people from that area will have to be accommodated in larger homes further from their homes, families and friends.”

Ewa Syczuk, 47, a qualified nurse from Poland who lives in Colwyn Bay, is the manager of Akari Care’s 21-bed Cartref y Borth nursing home in Llanrwst, and she blames the Brexit factor for the shortage of nurses.

She said: “I have been here for 15 years and two of my Polish friends have recently gone back because of Brexit and because pay is now better there.

“When I came here you could earn as much in two or three months here as you could in a year in Poland.

“Now it is very difficult to fill vacancies for nurses. We have advertised for two years and not had one application and I blame Brexit and the environment it has caused.

“Many people feel very unwelcome here now. A man asked me when I was going home and I said, ‘At five’o’clock, that’s when I go home’, and he’s unemployed and I’ve always worked since I’ve been here.

“But the staff here in Llanrwst are wonderful and I love the residents too but I think it is much more difficult to find nurses here in Wales than in the big towns and cities and agency nurses are very expensive and they don’t know the residents.”

Further down the Conwy Valley at Pentrefoelas, Meryl Welsby is Director of Cartref Bryn yr Eglwys Nursing Home and is experiencing similar recruitment problems but is reluctant to blame Brexit.

She said: “There is a general shortage of nurses in the UK but particularly in Wales and a major reason is that the Nursing and Midwifery Council which registers nurses in the UK changed its criteria for the English language.

“They now have to have an academic level of English which is very high, higher than in Australia or USA and that has largely closed the overseas market.

“At the same time we are training fewer nurses domestically and although I cover myself and I have a very good team who fill in for each other, sometimes we have to use the agencies.

“They can name their price and many are now going self-employed because it’s very lucrative for them but we are a small independent home with only 20 beds and so it’s not feasible to have agency nurses.

“It’s worse for us because we’re in a rural community a long way from a big general hospital and people here want to be looked after in their own locality and be able to speak Welsh.”

Mr Kreft added: “The chronic shortage of staff is getting worse all the time and causing a crisis in terms of the care people receive and the financial viability of the organisations providing the care, particularly in rural areas where there are no other options.

“As well as draining the resources of the social care sector it is also ramping up the pressure on the NHS which is already close to breaking point.”