Members of the Royal College of Nursing attending its annual conference in Belfast have today voted to support a referendum on the final Brexit deal.
However, despite the vote result, RCN leaders have said they must consult more widely with members before they make it a formal position of the college.
“It is very significant and interesting that this is how nurses are feeling”
If such a consultation were to match this afternoon’s vote result, the RCN would be the first major trade union to support a second referendum on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
The RCN remained neutral during the initial referendum itself in 2016, which triggered the current negotiations on the Brexit process.
But delegates today decided that the potential impact on nursing from Brexit, especially the pipeline of overseas nurses and regulations affecting clinical research, warranted a change of stance.
After an emergency debate and secret card vote, congress delegates supported a call for the RCN to lobby for a referendum on the final Brexit deal, with 364 in favour, 163 against and 57 abstentions.
“The RCN would need to do more consultation with the wider membership”
In response, RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies said: “It was a healthy debate, with a clear result, and great to see our members so interested in the topic.
“It is very significant and interesting that this is how nurses are feeling. You could hear in the debate that they are already seeing the consequences of Brexit,” said Ms Davies.
“We can’t manage without our European nurses but they are already leaving,” she said, highlighting the dramatic fall in the number of overseas nurses from the EU coming to the UK in recent years.
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“Even though we’re desperately trying to recruit, people aren’t coming from Europe in the number they used to,” she stated.
She added: “We were neutral in 2016 but our members are saying today that they want to take a position on a deal they can see.
“But to take this position formally, the RCN would need to do more consultation with the wider membership,” noted Ms Davies.
“The RCN has a very broad membership – with members who support all political parties and views – and that’s why we need to do more work to represent all members,” she said.
The government has so far steadfastly refused to entertain the idea of a second referendum, a view supported by Labour. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats have made it one of their core policies to seek a vote on the government’s proposals on Brexit.
Responding to the RCN vote, Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “Our health service is built on the backs of hard working staff from the UK, the EU and around the world.
”But now Brexit is causing EU staff to leave, just as Brexiter promises of more money for the NHS are blasted away by an economy at a standstill,” he said.
“The support of the Royal College of Nursing for the people to have a final say on Brexit therefore sends a clear message to Theresa May; the Tory Brexit mess is a nightmare for our NHS. Now, more than ever, the people deserve an opportunity to exit from Brexit,” he added.