The most popularly supported public service in the UK, the national health service (NHS) is also the country’s largest single employer. Throughout its nearly 70 year history, it has been reliant on migrant workers and may face a serious shortage of staff because of Brexit.
Since Britons voted for Brexit in June 2016, NHS employers have been concerned that the health service, which is already facing a staffing shortfall, could be deprived of thousands of EU nationals after the UK leaves the single market at the end of 2020.
Nationals from other EU countries make up almost 10% of doctors in England’s hospital and community health services, and just over 7% of all nurses.
On Wednesday (14 February), MPs on the Home Affairs committee described government delays to a promised White Paper on future immigration policy as “extremely regrettable”.
The delay has caused “anxiety” and “uncertainty” to both EU citizens in the UK and businesses, MPs said.
Ministers should “set out now clear and accessible guidance on the rights that EU27 and UK citizens can expect to exercise after Brexit,” the committee report added.
The Immigration White Paper was initially promised for summer 2017 but has now been postponed to autumn this year.
Anti-Brexit campaigners will hold an ‘Action Day’ on Saturday (17 February) in a bid to promote awareness of EU workers in the NHS.
“Our NHS is in the midst of a staffing crisis and this government’s lack of clarity on Brexit has meant EU staff have been leaving in droves,” said Dr Rob Davidson, CEO, Healthier IN the EU.
“Sadly, it’s our NHS and patients that are paying the price.”
On Friday, sources from the Department for Exiting the EU said that an outline plan had been agreed to grant residents from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway similar rights post-Brexit as those from EU member states.
“The Government must be louder and clearer in reassuring the tens of thousands of EU nurses and carers working across the UK – not just on their right to stay but how desperately the NHS and social care system needs them,” says Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of Royal College of Nursing.
“In some hospitals, one in five NHS workers has an EU passport – if there is a Brexit cliff-edge in migration, it will be the NHS going over it,” she added.
“The number of nurses coming from EU countries plummeted in the last eighteen months and, rather than redoubling her efforts to attract more, Theresa May told them they have even fewer rights if they arrive during the transition period. All the while, the NHS is short of at least 40,000 nurses and Britain is failing to train enough.”
The number of nurses from the EU-27 joining the NHS has fallen from 19% to 10% since 2016. However, the data does not yet suggest that an exodus of EU health workers from the UK has taken place. Around 62,000 known EU nationals work in the NHS, accounting for 5.6% of the total workforce, a slight increase from 5.5% in early 2016.
According to a report by the House of Commons library published this month, numbers of Spanish NHS staff are the only ones to have seen a substantial recorded decrease since the referendum in June 2016, from 7,240 to 6,781. There was also a small fall in the number of Italian, Portuguese, Czech and Croatian NHS staff. Meanwhile, the number of Romanian workers actually increased from 3,098 to 3,775.
Ireland accounts for the highest number of NHS staff, followed by Poland, Spain and Portugal.
Finance minister Philip Hammond will be in Portugal on Friday, as part of a flurry of Brexit-related activity by senior UK ministers.