NHS strain would worsen in the face of a harsh Brexit | Luna Williams


While uncertainties continue around Brexit, Luna Williams, political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service, discusses the impact of a hard Brexit on the NHS workforce.

Four months ago, the NHS celebrated its 70th birthday. Amid celebrations, resounding appeals for change were heard across the nation. With the longest waiting times, highest bed occupancy and largest waiting lists the NHS has ever seen, industry professionals across the board have been protesting against the slashes the NHS has received in the last decade.

This summer’s heatwave saw hospital staff struggle with record-breaking A&E attendances; 999 calls hit an all-time high, climbing to ten million calls in June. One investigation made by The Times found that, as the emergency services have been so stretched, a priority system has had to be implemented, which naturally favours callers who are in life-threatening situations. However, because of the nature of this system, over half the patients who were forced to wait overnight for the next available ambulance were over the age of 70, having suffered from non-fatal falls or minor injuries, according to the investigation.

These are just a few of the causalities of a severe staffing crisis within the NHS. Staff are currently stretched thinner than they ever have been, with doctors, nurses and many other staff members taking on extra shifts and working excessive hours just to cover rota gaps. A harsh Brexit could threaten to deepen workforce shortages and place even more pressure on the NHS.

Open and controlled, a report released by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) earlier this year, breaks down the major issues a no-deal/hard-deal Brexit would cause for the health sector. The report emphasises the importance of making the UK “an attractive destination where international nurses and doctors want to come”, something that a hard Brexit would not do -- if we assume this would lead to harsher immigration regulations for EU nationals. The report finds that EU nationals currently make up 17 per cent of dentists, 10 per cent of doctors and 7 per cent of social care workers, physiotherapists and nurses in the UK.

This percentage has already declined since the results of the referendum. According to the Nursing and Midwifery Council register, 805 EU nurses and midwives joined the register between Spring 2017 and Spring 2018, compared to 6,382 in the previous year. This marks a huge decrease: 87 per cent in just one year. There are speculations as to why this may be, including that the referendum result has made many European healthcare professionals choose to either leave the UK or choose alternative countries as their professional base, for fear of instability or prejudice. This option seems particularly likely considering Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’, which already caused huge detriment to certain communities, such as the Windrush generation.

“Workers from both the EU and the rest of the world play an invaluable role in supporting [the health sector]” the CBI writes, “from a leading brain surgeon from India through to home care assistants from Portugal”.

What’s more, many healthcare roles are already officially in shortage in the UK, being featured on the UK shortage occupation list. Some of these roles include: medical practitioners in the fields of clinical radiology, old-age psychiatry and paediatrics, medical radiographers in the fields of sonography and radiotherapy, other health professionals such as orthotists and prosthetists, all paramedics, and all nurses. By placing these roles on this list, the Home Office acknowledge that these professions cannot be filled solely by domestic talent. In other words, we need overseas talent to fill them.

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) condemned May’s ‘hostile environment’, arguing that it had driven away thousands of much-needed workers, which the NHS greatly depend on. Figures were released during this time, showing that at least 2,500 ‘in-shortage’ healthcare professionals had been turned away from the UK, in response to unrealistic immigration targets which were being imposed by the current government. In response to this, the government removed their Tier 2 Visa cap (of 20,700 per year) for doctors and nurses, in an effort to encourage more internationals to apply for these roles.

Unfortunately, this effort seems to have come as too little too late. NHS Improvement recently found that doctor posts are facing a shortage of just under 10 per cent, equating to 11,500 skilled-workers. Equally, The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) have stated that nursing vacancies have risen by 17 per cent in the last three months alone.

The CBI stresses the importance of a new “open and controlled” approach to immigration after Brexit. This is of fundamental importance for the UK’s health sector, and something which the government must bear in mind during negotiations if it wants to secure the future of the NHS. It is not only important that overseas healthcare professionals do not feel a ‘hostile environment’ from the UK, but that, instead, they are welcomed to it with open arms.

Luna Williams is political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service. Follow the organisation on Twitter @IASImmigration

For more on NHS workforce and Brexit, please visit the Cavendish Coalition on the NHS Employers website.

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