The health service has “benefitted enormously” from employing overseas nurses from Europe, the head of the NHS in England has said, warning that their impact would be missed if they left as a result of the UK voting to leave the European Union on 23 June.
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said “if only a proportion” of nurses and doctors chose to leave the UK it would create “real problems in hospitals across the country”.
“We’ve got 130,000 European Union nurses, doctors and care workers in the NHS and in care homes and we would surely miss the benefit they bring”
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Mr Stevens said: “The NHS actually has benefitted enormously from EU nurses and doctors, who we successfully recruit and who help staff our hospitals and our nursing homes.”
As an example, he referred to the local hospital of defence minister Penny Mordaunt, who is campaigning for the UK to vote leave the EU and was interviewed earlier on the programme.
“In her local hospital, 80 of the doctors are from the rest of the European Union; 350 nurses in her local hospital are from the European Union. If only a proportion of those chose to up sticks on the 24th of June, that will create real problems in hospitals across the country,” said Mr Stevens.
“We’ve got about 130,000 European Union nurses, doctors and care workers in the NHS, and in care homes, and we would surely miss the effect, the impact, the benefit they would bring were some of them to choose to leave,” he added.
TV presenter Andrew Marr suggested EU workers would not have to leave, but Mr Stevens said there was uncertainty about issues such as work permits, migration regimes and passports, which could result in them doing so.
Leaving the EU would present more risks than advantages for the health service due to a number of factors, including the potential loss of nurses and doctors, according to Mr Stevens.
“It would be very dangerous if at precisely the moment the NHS is going to need extra funding actually the economy goes into a tailspin”
He noted the head of the Bank of England had predicted a potential slowdown in economic growth if the UK left the EU, which Mr Stevens said was a “severe concern” for the NHS.
“It would be very dangerous if at precisely the moment the NHS is going to need extra funding actually the economy goes into a tailspin and that funding is not there,” he said.
He cited improvements to cancer services, upgraded mental health provision and plans to strengthen primary care, which were in the pipeline but that relied on funding that was tied to economic growth.
“It’s been true for the 68 years of the NHS’s history that when the British economy sneezes the NHS catches a cold. And this would be a terrible moment for that to happen – at precisely the time the NHS is going to need that extra investment,” said Mr Stevens.
When asked about how future increases in EU migrants could put pressure on NHS services, he noted if they paid taxes that would contribute to funding an expanded NHS.
“When the NHS was set up in 1948, we had a population of 50 million in this country, we’re at what, 65 million now. So the NHS has perfectly successfully coped with a 15 million expansion in our population. Provided it is properly resourced from the proceeds of economic growth it can do that,” he said.
“From the NHS’s perspective, it is pretty clear that the balance of the advantage is such that the risks would be greater were we to find ourselves in economic downturn, were we to find a number of our nurses and doctors contemplating leaving, and indeed if the pound were affected because a lot of the drug treatments that we buy are prices in Euros and dollars,” he said.
Earlier on the programme, Ms Mordaunt had said there would be more chance to increase spending on the NHS if the UK left the EU, as a result of the contribution the country currently pays to be a member.
Meanwhile, former foreign secretary Lord Owen, appeared to question Mr Stevens’ running of the NHS while also backing calls to leave the EU.
“Simon Stevens is the manager of the NHS which is currently £3bn in debt,” he said. “This man has presided now for a sufficient time to judge his management skills. In almost every part of the National Health Service there is an acute crisis.
“If there is any danger to the NHS, it is staying in with all the elements of the NHS which are now involved with the EU,” he told the BBC’s Sunday Politics.
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