Uncertainty over the government’s Brexit immigration plans is creating “anxiety” among the UK’s European Union workers, including the thousands employed in the health and care sector, warn MPs.
It is also preventing proper workforce planning by the NHS and other public services, according to a damning new report by the home affairs select committee.
“The litany of questions that remain over the status of EU citizens is causing needless anxiety and uncertainty”
The cross-party group slammed Theresa May’s decision to delay the Immigration White Paper, which was due last summer but has been put back until the autumn this year.
Brexit officially begins in March 2019 yet the MPs highlighted that there was still a “serious lack of detail” on immigration changes for EU nationals.
“It is extremely regrettable that the government has delayed the white paper and that there now appears to be no clear timetable for it to be published at all, stated the report.
The prospect of thousands of EU workers in the NHS leaving the country after Brexit has been a huge concern ever since the EU referendum, as reported by Nursing Times.
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While the select committee report does not explicitly mention NHS staffing, it is strongly critical of how the government’s lack of clarity is damaging public services overall.
“The needless uncertainty is preventing individuals from planning for their futures, and businesses and public services knowing how and where they can resource staff,” the report stated.
It also noted that, under the government’s Brexit proposals, it would be implementing a scheme that allowed EU NHS staff already in the UK to remain if they wanted.
But the registration process for EU nationals already living here is supposed to start within “months” MPs noted, and yet the rules currently “lack crucial detail”.
Neither is there clarity on how those arriving during the transition period or once the UK has fully left the EU will be processed, they warned.
“We simply cannot afford to lose the talented EU staff we currently employ”
Given the delays, it is not feasible for the government to bring in two new registration schemes – one for existing EU residents and one for new arrivals after Brexit day – by March 2019, the report said.
The report – published today and titled The Home Office delivery of Brexit: immigration – contains the findings of the influential committee’s inquiry into the government department’s capacity to meet the “Brexit challenge”.
“Government drift is putting everyone in an impossible position,” said Yvette Cooper, the select committee’s chair and Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford.
“The litany of questions that remain over the status of EU citizens is causing needless anxiety and uncertainty, both for EU citizens and their families and for employers who need to plan,” she said. “Ministers need to provide urgent answers.”
The report also complained that there was no detail about how hospitals would be expected to verify the status of European Economic Area nationals before offering a service post-Brexit.
In addition, the MPs noted concerns that people were refusing to report crime or seek medical help, because they were afraid their immigration details would be shared with the Home Office in the lead up to Brexit.
“If there is a Brexit cliff-edge in migration, it will be the NHS going over it”
Responding to the report, the Royal College of Nursing called on the government to reassure overseas nurses and carers from EU countries that they could stay in the UK.
The prime minister must also make clear how “desperately the NHS and social care system needs them”, said Janet Davies, RCN chief executive and general secretary.
She noted that the number of nurses coming from EU countries had “plummeted” in the last 18 months. The number of EU nurses admitted onto the UK nursing register dropped by almost half, from 1,304 in July 2016 to just 101 joining in December that year.
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“Rather than redoubling her efforts to attract more, Theresa May told them they have even fewer rights if they arrive during the transition period,” said Ms Davies. “All the while, the NHS is short of at least 40,000 nurses and Britain is failing to train enough.”
In some hospitals, one in five NHS workers have EU passports, she highlighted. “If there is a Brexit cliff-edge in migration, it will be the NHS going over it,” she said.
Ms Davies agreed with the select committee that “simply extending the current immigration system” would not be enough. Simply prioritising visas based on salary levels failed to recognise the benefits of international nurses to society and economy, she said.
The UK’s current points-based system sorts applicants partly according to their expected salary. Those wanting a Tier 2 general visa need to earn at least £30,000 and possibly as much as £55,000 to qualify for one this year due to high demand in recent years combined with the capping of quotas.
Status of EU NHS staff needs protection post-Brexit
Ms Davies also urged the government to consult widely on immigration arrangements to come in after Brexit, at the same time that the independent Migration Advisory Committee looked at the impact on public services.
The British Medical Association said the report cast “serious doubt” on the government’s ability to plan and deliver the proposed immigration changes after Brexit.
“The EU referendum was well over 18 months ago now and too many questions remain unanswered,” said BMA treasurer Dr Andrew Dearden,
“Despite some reassurance provided in the first phase of negotiations, there is still continued uncertainty over the status of EU nationals,” he said.
“Our own research has shown that many EU doctors are either considering or actively planning to leave the UK because of anxiety around Brexit, which is a cause for real concern,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Cavendish Coalition, an alliance of health and social care organisations set up in the wake of the EU referendum, said the new report showed the “huge challenges” facing UK employers after Brexit.
“The health and social care system remains under intolerable pressure and so we simply cannot afford to lose the talented EU staff we currently employ,” said Nadra Ahmed the coalition’s co-convenor.
“Faced with shortages of key staff and skills which cannot be met domestically, it’s imperative we do not continue to see fewer colleagues choosing the UK,” she added.