COVID-19 and post-Brexit immigration system set to worsen NHS staffing crisis

Austerity measures, dissatisfaction with politics, lack of transparency in the EU’s decisions and uncontrolled immigration may have been the major factors influencing the Brexit vote. Nevertheless, constraints on post-Brexit immigration will hurt Britain’s labor market as a large proportion of UK businesses, including the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), rely on an external workforce. The need to recruit and retain the healthcare workforce will be one the greatest challenges that the NHS will face as the UK is fighting the COVID-19 outbreak. The impact of Brexit and the proposed post-Brexit points-based immigration system will further escalate the NHS staffing crisis, says GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.

Urte Jakimaviciute, MSc, Senior Director of Market Research at GlobalData, commented: “The UK’s NHS is one of the largest employers in the world, and the biggest in the UK, employing over 1.3 million people. Due to austerity-caused underfunding, cuts in social care budgets, the growing aging population and increasing numbers of patients with chronic disease, the NHS has been constantly calling out for the funding to expand the workforce to keep up with increasing demand.

“Emergency legislation enabling recently retired healthcare professionals and some medical students to join the NHS workforce during the COVID-19 outbreak has clearly exposed the amount of pressure the NHS is currently under.”

According to the UK House of Commons, EU nationals make up 9.5% of physicians in England’s hospitals and community health services, 6.4% of all nurses and 5.7% of scientific, therapeutic and technical staff. London is particularly dependent on the EU for its healthcare workforce, with one-third of all EU nationals working in the city. The percentage of nurses and health visitors from the EU to the UK has declined since the EU referendum in 2016. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) expects that, in the short term, the UK may need an additional 2,700 nurses while dealing with the outbreak.

A lack of unrestricted access to the EU workforce will bring significant challenges to meeting this need. In adult social care, the positions for around one in ten social workers and one in 11 care workers are reportedly unfilled, with the highest vacancy rates being in London.

Jakimaviciute continues: “The UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, receiving treatment from immigrant nurses before he got discharged to continue his recovery from COVID-19 is yet another example of NHS reliance on international workforce. With a COVID-19 emergency looming and the Brexit transition period ending in December 2020, the UK needs to put an effective immigration policy in place to control staffing gaps post-Brexit. The governments’ proposed points-based immigration system sets a £25,600 [$32,016.13] per year salary cap to get a maximum amount of points under the scheme. While this salary cap could reduce the number of low-skilled workers, just a small fraction of nurses and care workers would qualify unless these healthcare workers are placed under a specific shortage occupation list. Nevertheless, no point-based system will replace the flexibility that the EU’s free movement brings.”

Even though the UK’s performance against European counterparts in healthcare quality is variable, the UK has one of the lowest numbers of practicing doctors per 1000 patients. The number of nurses per population in the UK it is lower than in Denmark, France, Germany, or Belgium.

Jakimaviciute concludes: “It shouldn’t take a pandemic crisis to provide the NHS with resources that it needs. An inability to adequately plan the workforce and workload will lead to further growing shortages and declining service quality of NHS.”

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