Overseas nurses are already starting to feel anxious about their immigration status and whether they remain welcome in the UK, while rumours of bullying are also emerging.
As a result, Nursing Times has been warned that fewer nurses and midwives from abroad could come to work following the country’s historic vote to leave the European Union on 23 June.
“This is just an impression but it has also somehow become less welcome in a way”
Trainee nurses from the EU told Nursing Times that these concerns, as well as the fact the country could suffer economically as a result of a “Brexit”, meant there was a risk the UK was now a less attractive place to work.
Meanwhile, unions last week spoke of healthcare workers who had been verbally abused since the result of the vote, and of those who feared they would not be as accepted in the UK from now on.
The snapshot of how nurses are feeling after the referendum comes as the health secretary, chief nursing officer for England and directors of nursing across the country strove to reassure EU staff working in the NHS and care sector that they are “valued and hugely appreciated”.
Flo Panel-Coates, chief nurse at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said that although it was too early to predict how much the vote would impact on recruitment of overseas nurses, EU nurses were anxious about staying in the country due to uncertainties surrounding Brexit.
“There has been an initial wobble where some people are saying ‘Am I wanted in the country?’, and what does this mean, if for example, I am an Italian nurse – which was one of the conversations I had last night,” she told Nursing Times.
“With the nurses and other professionals I’ve spoken to, I’ve reassured them as much as I can with the information I have, which is that they are valued, needed and wanted. We couldn’t cope without them,” she added.
“At this early stage we haven’t seen an impact on recruitment and we are not aware of any impact on contracts, but that is only based on the information we have at this point in time. At this stage, it is really important we stabilise people’s anxieties and help them feel safe and wanted,” she said.
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Jon Skewes, policy director at the Royal College of Midwives, said the union was receiving reports from officers across the country about members concerned about their immigration status, as well as feeling unwanted.
“The immediate impact is the feeling those staff just may not be welcome in this country,” he said. “We have heard of incidents where midwives have been either abused or told to go home by members of the public.
“There’s also been a situation where a couple of people were not from the EU. They are British citizens but black or from an ethnic monitory, and those people have been abused as well,” he said.
Mr Skewes also noted the expected negative impact on the economy could make the NHS a less desirable place for overseas citizens to work and could lead to less applying.
Student nurse Serena Ruffoni, who is from Italy and is training at London South Bank University, agreed and said she believed fewer EU nurses could look for work in the UK in the future.
“People may be deciding not to come…For reasons not related to nursing, the UK has become a place less attractive for an EU national in terms of living and working here. There will probably be a recession and you don’t know your immigration status,” she said.
“This is just an impression but it has also somehow become less welcome in a way. I haven’t been the object of [racist] incidents reported in the media, but even a few anecdotal episodes is worrying,” added Ms Ruffoni.
“It’s not a nice feeling thinking am I going to be insulted when people realise I’m not British”
Another LSBU student nurse, Sara Sanchez, who is from Spain, said she was considering leaving the UK for the first time in the 16 years she has lived here due to the referendum result.
“I’m waiting to see what happens with Scotland. I would consider moving there is they have an agreement with the EU. Otherwise I will be considering moving out of the country,” she said.
She said she would not be paid enough as a newly qualified nurse to be able to afford an application for British citizenship if that was required for her to continue working in the UK.
She said she was also concerned she would not earn enough to meet salary thresholds required for overseas workers if that rule were also applied to EU nationals following Brexit.
Ms Sanchez said she was also concerned about people from the EU receiving racist abuse in the UK.
“You go out and you feel different. It’s nothing to do with the people around me. But it’s not a nice feeling thinking am I going to be insulted when people realise I’m not British,” she said.
She said other Spanish nurses she worked with had also said they were now looking to leave the UK.
“They are all saying in the next two years [after Brexit has started] they will move back to Spain. Even the ones that have British partners,” she said.
Joan Pons Laplana
However, Joan Pons Laplana, a community nurse from Spain who works at NHS Arden and Greater East Midlands Commissioning Support Unit, said he believed a Brexit would not lead to fewer foreign nurses working in the UK due to the high vacancy rate in the country.
There are around 22,000 EU nurses, health visitors and midwives working in the NHS, making up about 6.5% of the total nursing workforce according to the latest data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre. Average vacancy rates for nurses in England are estimated to be around 9.4%.
“It would be a waste of time and resources should the government say we don’t want European nurses – I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Mr Pons Laplana, a former care maker.
“Europeans will always be welcome here because we don’t have enough nurses. That’s not a problem that will be sorted in the next five or even 10 years,” he said.
But he told Nursing Times he believed Brexit would stop the NHS from being able to recruit nurses as quickly as they do now, if they were subject to time-consuming visa application processes.
“Any extra pieces of paper or bureaucracy will make it more difficult to recruit. It will probably take longer and that will not help the current pressures we have,” he said.
“I’ve reassured them as much as I can with the information I have”
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said: “We have always relied on people inside and outside the EU to supplement our workforce. Over the next two years, we must work out what the exit settlement will be, and find a way to retain these valuable workers.
“We are clear that the UK must remain an attractive destination for EU health workers as we are aware registration and licensing procedures for EU health professionals could become more onerous,” he said.
“Our immediate concern is to respond to the confusion and concern caused by the referendum result. As a group of employers, we are desperate to ensure colleagues feel loved and wanted,” he added.
The Royal College of Nursing said it “wholeheartedly condemned” any prejudice or racist abuse directed at nursing staff following reported incidents of abuse directed towards people working in the health service since the referendum.
RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies said: “The referendum result means this is a time of uncertainty for many, but there should be zero tolerance of any abuse.”