Working hours protections for more than one million NHS staff could be in jeopardy in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, unions and employers have warned in the wake of yesterday’s vote.
Union leaders have said protections for staff on the Agenda for Change pay framework would be need to be re-examined and if necessary “contractualised” to ensure they are not lost.
They also warned that the economic impact of the referendum vote on overseas staff working in the health service. NHS England medical director Sir Bruce Keogh stressed the need to make European staff feel welcome and valued in the NHS.
The referendum outcome has thrown into the doubt the future of the European Working Time Directive and its impact on the NHS. It will cease to apply if the UK leaves the EU and does not join the European single market.
The proposed junior doctors’ contract includes an average 48 hour working week and if that is adopted by the British Medical Association it will become a legally binding contract. However, the working hours for Agenda for Change staff are not protected by contractual rules.
Christine McAnea, chair of the NHS staff council and head of health at Unison, which had urged its members to vote “remain”, said limits on working hours would have to be improved.
“The European Working Time Directive would have to be contractualised for Agenda for Change staff,” she told Nursing Times’ sister title Health Service Journal on Friday.
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“We want an assessment of what are the terms and conditions that NHS staff have got that derives from European legislation and how do we ensure they are protected,” she said. “We need an analysis of that and whether they can be lifted and shifted into Agenda for Change. We will have to look at that.”
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said: “There are a range of employment and regulatory agreements that exist within the EU that impact on the people working in the NHS.
“We will consult with our members about these and will, working with our trade union and European office colleagues, assist the government and regulators to ensure that there is a careful settlement of these issues over the next two years,” he said.
Ms McAnea also raised fears over the economic impact of the referendum decision.
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“There has to be a message going out straight away to reassure the 55,000 EU workers in the NHS that they are still a valued part of the NHS and assuring them that they are essential workers and are not going to be kicked out anytime soon and have a right to remain and work in the NHS,” she said.
She also raised the concern about the economic impact on overseas staff working in the NHS, saying: “If inflation raises and the value of the pound falls then particularly if they are using that money to support their families back home then the value of that money will go down.
“It puts the government’s pay policy in jeopardy,” she said. “They can’t maintain a 1% pay cap at a time when inflation is starting to go up. If this results even in a short term economic crisis and we go back into recession then the impact that has on the economy will have a massive impact on the NHS.”
A spokesman for the Royal College of Midwives, which also encouraged members to vote “remain”, said: “The RCM will redouble its efforts to safeguard its members’ employment rights, the status of the profession and women’s maternity entitlements and protections.
“We will also be seeking assurances about the position and future of the many valued EU citizens who work in the NHS,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing, which has remained neutral during the referendum, said it would ”continue to work closely with our sister nursing organisations across Europe as we have done for many years”.
“Once there is greater clarity, the RCN will take forward work to consider the impact of leaving for both nursing and the RCN, to ensure that the voice of nursing is heard in future negotiations to leave the EU,” it said.