One year on from Article 50 being triggered, and the public’s patience concerning Brexit, what it is and what shape it will ultimately take is wearing thin.
Barely a day passes without a major news story concerning Brexit – although, once you delve into the story, you quickly realise it’s far less major than it first seemed. At times, Brexit is just as boring as it is significant.
In terms of the NHS though, the triggering of Article 50 has had an undoubted impact – and will continue to do so. The extent of that impact is of course debatable, because many of the so-called effects are difficult to prove or quantify.
But with some elements of the Brexit process starting to take shape, we are starting to get a clearer impression of what the future looks like.
The impact on staffing
5.6% (62,000) of NHS staff are EU nationals. So when the NMC revealed that the number of EU nurses and midwives coming to work in the UK had dropped by 89% since the referendum, there was a media frenzy. The situation got worse when headlines were circulating that 10,000 EU health workers had left between the referendum and September 2017.
Brexit, it seemed, was scaring off EU staff – and the health sector’s biggest fears were realised. With bursaries gone, staff retiring in greater numbers and the well-publicised growth in patient numbers, this was arguably the final straw.
But the story wasn’t, and isn’t, that simple. As we argued during our campaign to shine a spotlight on the problems with IELTS testing of foreign healthcare workers, Brexit isn’t the only problem. Our campaign not only led to the introduction of a new testing system, but also proved that for many, IELTS was a bigger problem than Brexit.
It’s also worth noting that, in the years preceding 2017, the number of EU nationals working in the NHS increased on an unprecedented scale. As of June 2017, there were 61,891 EU workers in the NHS – a 55% increase over 3 years. So while reductions are a concern, the context must be fully appreciated.
EU nationals buoyed by transition announcement
The infamous ‘battle bus’ claim that leaving the EU would save the NHS £350 million a week was quickly discredited. In reality, this year has taught us that the outcome of Brexit and its consequent impact on the NHS’ finances is far more complex and nuanced. And for trusts dealing with the frontline consequences of drastic underfunding, that claim must have seemed particularly vacuous.
But the recent confirmation of the transition period that runs from March 2019 to the end of 2020 offers some reassurance. Given how complex and challenging the negotiations have become, time seems increasingly valuable. In Brexit negotiations, time really is money.
This hopefully gives the NHS some breathing room to get better at retaining and attracting EU staff, and gives EU workers themselves more time to consider their future. And on the issue of EU citizen’s rights, positive steps have been taken too. Recently, Theresa May accepted that EU migrants who arrive in the UK during the transition period will have the legal right to settle in the UK. This had been in doubt, so offers security to potential EU workers about their future.
Brexit is having an impact. But the NHS still needs and wants EU staff
While the effects of Brexit might have been exaggerated, its impact is undeniable.
But with NHS vacancy rates at an all-time high, we must continue to emphasise a simple fact: EU workers are not only welcome in the UK, but desperately needed. Brexit has not changed the reality of that fact.
We continue to help, support, train, recruit and settle EU nationals into new lives in the UK, and many will go on to make the UK their permanent home. That opportunity remains, and it will not stop.
And as the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday, it’s as good a time as any to celebrate too the incredible work our 62,000 EU workers do across the NHS, every day. The NHS is facing big challenges; but without EU migrants, those challenges are insurmountable.