Nurses are “unable to pay rent” and are relying on food banks, MPs have heard.
The Royal College of Nursing said the nursing workforce is in a “critical situation”.
The warning comes as reports suggest that six NHS trusts have set up food banks for staff to help with the rising cost of living.
Dr Denise Chaffer, president of the college, said that pay is also linked to safe care for patients.
She said that staff retention was a “critical issue” in the sector and it was having a major impact on safe staffing levels of nurses.
At a meeting of the Health and Social Care Committee, Dr Chaffer said: “The situation for nursing is really quite critical at the moment.
“We’ve got a huge problem with retention – the Nursing Midwifery Council published figures last week around the increase in nurses that are leaving the profession.”
She added: “Nurses that are not able to give safe care is very, very bad news for patients.
“Our concerns are particularly for the harm that could cause the patient by not having enough nurses. We don’t want to see any of the scandals we’ve seen in the past.”
Asked what could be done, she added: “We can’t get away from the fact of the pay issue – we have nurses that are unable to pay their rent, afford their petrol to get to work and they’re unable to get a mortgage.
“We’ve spoken to a number of members that just cannot get a mortgage, that are relying on food banks.
“Clearly pay is obviously critical and we can’t move away from that.”
Asked about whether she had envisaged a time when six NHS trusts had set up food banks to support their workforce, Dr Chaffer continued: “No, I really didn’t.
“And when we talk about pay, we’re also talking about safe care for patients.”
She said that nursing pay has been “behind the curve for some time”, adding: “We can’t afford not to address this.”
Dr Chaffer added: “I’ve got many friends and family members that are nurses but they actually just can’t do it any more, and that’s what we’re seeing – people are walking.
“We have got to tackle the fact that we are we are losing nurses, we cannot afford to lose one single nurse.”
Gill Walton, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, told the committee that the midwifery workforce was also “very fragile”.
“There is still a huge shortage and in fact there are less midwives in practice than last year,” she said.
She added that we are “very far off” from being able to provide continuity of care for patients.
“The Royal College of Midwives believes that gold standard is what every woman needs but until there is enough midwives in the system it is not possible to implement in the way that is envisaged.”