'NHS can't function without them' - Hospital data reveals reliance on EU workers amid Brexit fears
PUBLISHED: 05:30 23 October 2018 | UPDATED: 09:04 23 October 2018
NHS staff from EU countries account for up to a sixth of the workforce in some of the region's key hospital roles, figures show.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s (TBIJ) analysis has sparked warnings that Suffolk and Essex hospitals could struggle as panicked workers “up sticks and leave” due to the “hostile environment” of Brexit Britain.
EU workers make-up 5% of the NHS’s total workforce – but the TBIJ data reveals the proportion at many trusts is far higher.
The data shows 16.6% of nurses at Mid Essex Hospital Trust and 11.2% of doctors at West Suffolk Hospital are from the EU.
Senior figures have warned they may struggle to fill these posts as recruitment from Europe dries up, impacting on waiting times.
BBC data shows the number of EU staff joining Ipswich Hospital fell from 42 in 2015/16 to just eight last year while at Colchester the figure plummeted from 148 to 31 over the same period.
Unison Eastern’s regional head of health Sasha Pearce said Suffolk and Essex hospitals were “already reeling” from serious staff shortages, which was highlighted during the merger of Ipswich and Colchester hospitals.
“There’s a straight line between Theresa May’s chaotic dealings with Brussels and the panic felt by many staff on the hospital floor,” she added. “It’s hard to see how any hospital could meet demand with so many of its frontline staff deciding to up sticks and leave because they can’t cope with life in the Tories’ ‘hostile environment’ as we leave the EU.”
Unison is lobbying MPs next month, calling for EU citizens’ rights to be ring-fenced from Brexit talks. Ms Pearce said EU citizens should not be used for negotiations. “They’re the nurse helping you battle cancer and the therapist helping you to walk again after a stroke,” she added. “The NHS simply can’t function without them.”
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said EU recruitment had “plummeted”, and any continued fall in nursing numbers would increase waiting times dramatically. “We would have to close capacity because we couldn’t man the beds or run the theatres,” he added. “Costs would go up because we had to rely on more expensive agency staff.”
Uncertainties over Brexit have hit nursing particularly hard. There are 41,000 nursing vacancies in England - a shortage that the Royal College of Nursing warned last year would make the NHS “unsafe” - and annual turnover is more than 15%.
Joan Pons Laplana, a nurse at James Paget Hospital in Gorleston who also campaigns on behalf of EU NHS staff, said: “We feel quite deflated as EU staff and quite angry that [the government] is not solving the issue. They don’t seem to realise five million people’s lives depend on this deal.”
He said Brexit worries came with a backdrop of rising demand and dwindling NHS resources.
“We’re trying to keep good care with less resources,” he said. “But we’re playing Russian roulette and you’re hoping no one is going to die in your care. Then on top of that, while working hard to support the NHS, you have Brexit and we’re told we may have to pay £65 to register to stay here.”
The Suffolk GP Federation has been working to address Suffolk’s long-running challenges with recruitment and fears leaving the EU is “not going to make the situation any easier”.
Medical director Paul Driscoll said the federation was trying to simplify the process by helping practices with visa applications, acting as a point of contact and sponsoring doctors who want to work in the UK, “We are also working in partnership with our healthcare colleagues to encourage more healthcare professionals from the UK to consider a career in primary care,” Dr Driscoll added. “We run support groups for young doctors just starting their careers and we regularly meet with foundation training doctors working in hospitals and those on the local GP training scheme. Our Christmas Maltings and Christmas Practice in Haverhill for example is currently hosting physiotherapy students from the University of East Anglia – some of the first placements of their kind in the UK. We’ve also been looking at ways to make primary care more attractive for younger doctors – offering greater variety through a portfolio career and sessions in our GP+ extended hours and Out of Hours services.”
Healthwatch Suffolk’s chief executive Andy Yacoub said: “The Brexit conditions will dictate how much of an impact there will be, but there will definitely be an impact.”
The Department of Health said the number of EU nationals working in the NHS had increased since the referendum. A spokesman said the “NHS is preparing for all situations”, but stressed EU staff in the NHS “will be among the first to be able to secure their settled status”.
What are health leaders doing about the challenges?
Hospitals and public sector leaders in Suffolk are meeting next month to plan how to meet challenges posed by Brexit.
Amanda Lyes, chief corporate services officer for the Ipswich and East Suffolk and West Suffolk clinical commissioning groups, said the key would be to “ensure a smooth continuation of public services”.
Jan Bloomfield, executive director of workforce at West Suffolk Hospital added: “Staff retention is a priority”.
She said EU staff did “superb work” and the hospital would help them apply for settled status. “The trust continues to look at alternative recruitment solutions to attract more people to nursing in particular, including our ‘return to nursing’ programme, a ‘recommend a friend’ scheme and our new nursing apprenticeship scheme, which has 15 staff enrolled on it as of September,” she added. “We are also happy to have welcomed 12 newly-qualified nurses to our Trust. A recent overseas nurse recruitment drive from outside the EU resulted in 170 conditional offers being made, with 23 nurses from the Philippines recently joining us.”
Director of nursing at the James Paget Hospital Julia Hunt said management worked to ensure staff recruitment and retention through a variety of measures, including advertising abroad for staff. “EU staff are a valued part of our workforce and we will support each member of staff on an individual basis. As with any organisation, there is an impact when any member of staff chooses to leave, whatever the reason, but we try to ensure the Paget is a good place to work and to build a career.”
A spokesman for Mid Essex Hospital Trust added: “Like all hospitals, we work continuously to recruit permanent and temporary staff so we can give our patients the best possible care.
“When we advertise roles at our hospitals we regularly receive applications from across Europe.
“This year we developed and are implementing a recruitment and retention strategy – particularly focused on nurses and midwives – to encourage a steady stream of frontline staff to join us and to provide an environment where they want to stay and progress their careers.”