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Jeremy Hunt Says Brexit May Have Had "Marginal Impact" On NHS Staffing

Increased pressure on the NHS has resulted in long waits for some patients

5 min read

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said Brexit may have had some impact on staffing following a new report exposing major shortages in the NHS.

In a new report by the health and social care select committee, which Hunt chairs, a cross-party group of MPs warned patients were being put at risk from the "greatest workforce crisis" in NHS history with thousands of roles left unfilled.

According to the report, NHS England figures showing vacancies for 8,016 doctors and nearly 40,000 nurses could be significantly underestimating the size of the problem, with new analysis from the Nuffield Trust claiming the figures could be as high as 12,000 vacancies for doctors, and 50,000 for nursing staff.

"We now face the greatest workforce crisis in history in the NHS and in social care, with still no idea of the number of additional doctors, nurses and other professionals we actually need," Hunt, the former health secretary who now chairs the Commons committee, wrote in a statement accompanying the report.

It added that "persistent understaffing" in the health service posed a "serious risk to staff and patient safety, both for routine and emergency care. It also costs more as patients present later with more serious illness."

Speaking to LBC on Monday, Hunt said Brexit may have had a "marginal impact" on staffing due to "uncertainty" following the UK's exit from the bloc meaning that many staff from EU countries have left the health service.

"There may have been some NHS staff who went back to Portugal or Poland or wherever. I think it was more likely to have been the pandemic, people heading off home before those lockdown happens," he said.

"But the truth is that all over the world now, according to the World Heath Organisation, there is a shortage of 2 million doctors, 15 million nurses, and so we are not the only country facing these shortages. And the long-term solution is to increase the number we train."

Hunt, who was health secretary from 2012 to 2018, admitted that he had "to accept some responsibility" for current issues in the health service, but insisted that he "did set up six new medical schools and increased the number of doctors we trained by 25 per cent".

"We need to have a system that is much more robust, that doesn't rely on individual health secretaries or chancellors making decisions, but gives the NHS confidence that whoever the government is, whoever the health secretary is, we will always be training enough doctors and nurses for the future," he told Sky News. 

As the Conservative leadership contest enters its final weeks, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss will face questions about how they would support the NHS if they become the next prime minister, with Sunak already warning that growing waiting lists and pressures on staff could lead the health service to "break" without additional help.

"Already many people are using money they can’t really afford to go private. That is privatisation by the back door and it’s wrong," he told The Times on Saturday as he made pledges for what he would do as prime minister.

"People shouldn’t have to make a choice with a gun to their head.

"If we do not immediately set in train a radically different approach the NHS will come under unsustainable pressure and break."

The comments are a stark contrast to those made by Boris Johnson last week in a parliamentary written statement detailing "delivery" during his time in office. The outgoing prime minister claimed the NHS was on a "surer footing", saying that more doctors and around 30,000 new nurses had been recruited since March 2019.

MPs on the committee said NHS staff knew there was not a "silver bullet" to solve the crisis. "This must be a top priority for the new prime minister," the report insisted.

Patricia Marquis, the Royal College of Nursing's director for England, said: "That persistent understaffing in all care settings poses a serious risk to staff and patient safety should shock ministers into action.

"On pay, the committee was very clear saying it is unacceptable that some NHS nurses are struggling to feed their families, pay their rent, and travel to work.

"Their recommendation that nursing staff should be given a pay rise that takes account of the cost of living crisis should make government rethink the latest pay deal that follows a decade of real terms pay cuts that will force even more to leave the profession."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are growing the health and social care workforce, with over 4,000 more doctors, and 9,600 more nurses compared to last year, and over 1,400 more doctors in general practice compared to March 2019."

They added: "We have commissioned NHS England to develop a long-term workforce plan to recruit and support NHS staff while they deliver high quality, safe care to patients and help to bust the Covid backlogs."

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