The NHS could not function without nurses and midwives from other countries, claimed shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander today in a speech backing Britain staying in the European Union.
Speaking at the headquarters of public sector union Unison, Ms Alexander said parts of the health service would not work without the contribution of EU migrants.
“You’re more likely to come across a migrant caring for you in hospital than in the bed next to you – 52,000 people working in the NHS today are from other European countries,” she said.
“These are doctors, nurse and midwives who work day-in, day-out saving lives and caring for our loved ones through ill health,” she added.
Ms Alexander acknowledged that being a frontline member of staff in the NHS at the moment was “hard going”, but argued that leaving the EU could make things worse.
“I know how you constantly feel as if you are being asked to do more for less,” she said. “How cuts to nurse training places mean staff are overworked and spread too thin. And how you are left picking up the pieces of a social care system which is on its knees due to years of under-funding.”
“I know how you constantly feel as if you are being asked to do more for less”
She said investing in current and new staff was vital for the future of the health service and this included developing “more home-grown staff” and ensuring young people “see care as a vocation and not as a job of last resort”.
Nevertheless, she stressed that the NHS currently relied on workers from the EU, such as the Polish healthcare assistant who looked after her grandmother towards the end of her life.
“Brexit” could mean existing NHS staff originally from abroad could be forced to leave the country because of difficulties renewing visas, she suggested.
There may be new restrictions on recruiting new staff and hospitals could struggle to recruit “without immediate access to the pool of qualified staff from other European countries”.
“At a time when hospital wards are already dangerously understaffed, when the care system is already in crisis, is leaving the EU a risk the NHS can afford to take?” she said.
She warned that Brexit risked “plunging the health service into an even deeper financial crisis”, flagging up a new analysis by Labour that claimed it could blow a £10.5bn hole in the NHS budget.
“That’s £10.5bn pounds of cuts which, if made today, would mean every hospital trust in England cutting 1,000 nurses and 155 doctors,” she said.
However, Vote Leave campaigners have previously argued that exiting the EU would free up more money that could be pumped into the NHS.
In addition, Brexit supporters, including Boris Johnson, have claimed that reducing migration could alleviate pressure on health services such as accident and emergency departments.