Norman Lamb: EU workers are vital to our NHS. Ministers must act now to safeguard their future

Posted On: 
23rd January 2017

It would be a monumental act of national self-harm to deprive the NHS and social care services of essential staff. And it's patients who will pay the price.

"There are more than 55,000 citizens of other EU countries working in the NHS and 80,000 in the social care sector," Lamb writes

After months of campaigning on the false promise of an extra £350m a week for the NHS, the lies of the Leave campaign unravelled faster than many of us expected.

The galling sight of Nigel Farage disowning that pledge, live on television on the morning of the referendum result, confirmed a profound betrayal of those who voted to leave in the hope of reviving a flagging NHS. And yet this broken promise barely scratches the surface of the potential impact of Brexit on our health and care services.

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There are more than 55,000 citizens of other EU countries working in the NHS and 80,000 in the social care sector. EU immigrants make up about 10% of doctors and 4% of our nurses, with many more working as midwives, pharmacists, paramedics, support workers and administrative staff.

Migrant workers from Europe are an invaluable asset – caring for the sick and elderly and performing other crucial roles, often on low pay and under very difficult conditions.

At a time when the system is facing chronic staff shortages in the face of an ageing population, and unprecedented demand for healthcare, we are more reliant on overseas staff to provide safe and high-quality care than ever before. But Britain’s vote to leave the EU has put this in jeopardy, and the government’s apparent intent to pursue a ‘hard Brexit’ increases those fears.

Six months on, the government has still not guaranteed the right of EU health and care workers to remain in the UK post-Brexit. Instead, they have been left in limbo as ministers prepare to use them as a bargaining pawn in negotiations. Last month, the Institute for Employment Studies warned that this uncertainty will discourage EU nurses from taking up positions in the UK, while those already working here could return to their native countries if they feel unwelcome and undervalued.

These anxieties are compounded by a disturbing return of openly expressed racist sentiments which we thought had been largely banished or at the very least suppressed from our society. An employer in my own county of Norfolk told me that they were finding it harder to recruit vital labour from eastern European countries because word has spread that it is not safe to come to the UK. Police figures have shown a spike in hate crimes since the referendum, with migrant NHS workers reporting that they have been on the receiving end of racial abuse and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Coupled with an already critical shortage of staff, unsustainable workloads, and morale at its nadir, is it any wonder that EU workers are considering their futures in this country?

The government must act without delay to address this toxic situation. As a start, whatever the future restrictions on freedom of movement, European health and care workers must be given an indefinite right to remain in the UK to prevent a post-Brexit brain drain. Because let’s be clear: it would be a monumental act of national self-harm if we deprived the NHS and social care services of these essential staff, and it would be patients who pay the price.

An exodus of migrant workers, and fewer staff coming from other parts of Europe, could have dangerous consequences when services are already under intolerable strain. The fear is that we will see longer waits for treatment, an increasing catalogue of failures of care, and more sick and elderly people not receiving the support they need.

There was a breathtaking naivety to the prime minister’s suggestion that the NHS can do without EU migrants and become self-sufficient in its workforce.

Despite the government’s promise to train more home-grown doctors and nurses, the facts tell a different story. Applications for nursing degree places have fallen sharply after the scrapping of bursaries; the number of student midwives training in England declined by almost 5% last year; and a recent letter I received from the health secretary failed to provide any detail of how many additional junior doctors will be trained and employed between now and the end of the parliament to help deliver the government’s ill-defined and uncosted ‘seven-day NHS’.

In a post-truth climate where harsh realities are decried as pessimistic scaremongering, people must be prepared to speak the unpopular truth. We must invest more in training to relieve the pressure on NHS and care staff, boost morale, and ultimately improve patient care. But EU migrants will remain an important part of a sustainable workforce that can meet the needs of an ageing population. We would be a poorer and less healthy nation without them.

Norman Lamb is Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk and a former health minister