If EU workers left the NHS...

Emma Baines

As well as enough money to build a new hospital every week post-Brexit, the Leave campaign promised to relieve the NHS of the pressure it is put under by 'health tourism' and the arrival in Britain of hundreds of thousands of public-service-hungry migrants each year. It now seems the NHS is as unlikely to benefit from restrictions on EU immigration to Britain as it is to receive an extra £350 million a week. The amount that would be saved by not treating EU migrants would make no dent in the NHS’s financial problems, while a lack of EU workers would mean fewer staff on overworked NHS wards.

The Nuffield Trust estimates that migration from the EU accounted for £160 million of the rise in NHS costs between 2014-15 and 2015-16 – a negligible amount compared to the £1.6 billion extra spent on new technologies and improvements in standards of care, and the £2.8 billion increase from inflation and rising wages.

Meanwhile, the most recent figures from the National Audit Office show a shortfall of 5.9 per cent between the number of NHS staff required and the number available to work – equivalent to 50,000 full time members of staff. For nurses, midwives and health visitors, the shortfall is as high as 7.2 per cent. The staffing crisis is likely to get worse, as one in three nurses are set to retire within the next 10 years, according to a report by the Institute for Employment Studies. The shortfall is the predictable result of chronically underfunded nurse training and increased demand for nursing services.

EU nationals make up 55,000 of the 1.3 million people who work for the NHS, including 10 per cent of doctors and 4 per cent of nurses. ‘The NHS cannot survive without the tens of thousands of dedicated health staff from across the EU currently working here,’ Unison’s head of health, Christina McAnea, said. ‘Following the referendum, workers from Europe – and elsewhere – need to know they are valued hugely, both by the NHS and the people they care for.’

Terence Stephenson, the chair of the General Medical Council, said that Brexit will not affect the status of EU doctors currently registered to work in the UK. Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary (still), and senior figures in the NHS have made public statements of support for NHS staff from the EU.

But incidents of racism directed at NHS employees by patients have risen since the referendum, with the Nursing Times reporting that European midwives have been abused or told to ‘go home’, and that other EU nurses are planning to leave the UK within the next few years because of the fear of racist abuse.

Even if existing NHS staff from the EU are persuaded to stay, Brexit threatens to cut off the supply of new European recruits. More than 60 per cent of healthcare trusts reported actively recruiting nurses from outside the UK in the past year, and before the referendum, further recruitment from the EU was planned for both doctors and nurses.

‘With the uncertainty around the status of EEA workers in the UK, the recruitment pipeline from Europe is likely to be hit hard,’ according to Rachel Marangozov, the lead author of the IES report. ‘Many nurses already in the UK, as well as potential recruits in countries like Spain and Italy, will be concerned about their future prospects if their status in the UK remains uncertain.’


  • 24 July 2016 at 10:49am
    AndrewCorser says:
    In John Lanchester's excellent "Brexit Blues" (LRB 28/7/16) he says 'The office for Budget Responsibility puts the necessary level of long-term immigration at 140,000 a year.' It would be great to know the specific reference for this - the discourse on immigration needs to shift to include (the Overton window, also mentioned in this article, needs to include) this (alegedly independent) contradiction of Cameron's/the Tories' assertion that net immigration needs to be in the 10's of thousands.

    Numbers in public discourse need to be simple: using the term '10's of thousands' was however an example of simplifying in order to mystify, as well as being a direct lie: if the OBR says we need 140,00, trying to bring the number down to, say 40,000 would be ludicrous; but perhaps 140,000 could be said to be within the mystified 10's of thousands? I doubt many would accept that demystification.

    What is more, using the figures in the article, and taking students out of the 330,000 latest net figure would bring the actual latest figure close to the long-term required level - in other words, immigration is currently at the level needed for maintenance of the NHS and schools: again, not even Tory Remainers would have said, or would now say that is the case!

    Taking back control of immigration was certainly a major part of the Brexit case, but it was based on the lie that overall immigration into the UK is too high. It isn't, and reducing it will negatively affect the NHS and schools. Fight you way out of that paper bag, Boris!

  • 25 July 2016 at 8:54am
    countrymile says:
    I'm not aware of figures for migrant workers in pre-university education, I suspect it's relatively high. I was told recently at a government organised meeting that employing teachers from abroad is a governmental focus for increasing teacher numbers.

    Whilst migrants are in general younger and healthier than the general population, they are also younger and on average have more children than the established population. The school might well benefit from immigration, but I don't imagine it's as clear cut as medicine.

  • 25 July 2016 at 3:57pm
    davidnoelgardner says:
    The medical staff are trained by the poorer nations' tax payers and stolen from them to run the NHS and then subjected to every form of racism.
    British with the tax structure akin to the USA and run like a tax haven lacks the tax funds to train doctors, nurses, medical technicians.
    When required taxation will pay for the training of medical staff and doctors, then the NHS will stand on dignified functioning foundations. EU funds notwithtanding until there governance that fulfils the mission of the NHS by training and placing tax funds into the NHS it will remain disfunctional, racist and abysmal theiving from poorer nations' tax payers.