I got angry on Monday at around 2.30pm. It’s not something I try to make a habit of but sometimes you hear things that just spark an emotional reaction.
I had been asked to speak at National Student Nurse Congress, taking place at St George’s Hospital in London.
The subject the organisers – led by the excellent Nikki Yun – had asked me to broach was Brexit and its likely impact on the NHS and the nursing workforce.
I came armed with slides and print-outs, slightly anxious that I had an hour and a quarter to fill on a subject that, let’s face it, tends to be linked with more uncertainties than actual facts.
Thus, I spent half an hour ploughing through how Nursing Times had covered Brexit, starting with our poll of 500 nurses back in early June 2016, which indicated that most would vote leave.
I then moved on through the fact that the numbers of overseas nurses from the European Union coming to the UK in the aftermath of the referendum had fallen off a cliff – from 1,304 in July 2016 to only 100 in December 2016.
- Exclusive: Nurse views on EU referendum revealed
- Brexit may hit NHS nurse ‘pipeline’, says NMC chief
- Significant drop in EU nurse numbers for first time in years
After that, I highlighted our various headlines over the last few years covering things such as the concerns raised by various groups and organisations on issues like workforce and drugs supplies.
In there too, were several stories on the government’s attempts to allay the fears of nurses from the EU who are working in the UK and essentially retain their services for the NHS.
- Overseas nurses to remain exempt from visa salary threshold
- EU nurse qualifications to be recognised in UK after Brexit
- Charge dropped for EU nurses applying for ‘settled status’
After all, trusts have spent large sums of money on nurse recruitment campaigns focused on countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy over the last decade.
As I finished my presentation, I started to prepare for the ensuing 30-minute question-and-answer session on the various policies and uncertainties associated with Brexit and the NHS.
What followed was, however, was something slightly different and altogether more visceral in tone. Student after student took to the microphone to describe an incident where Brexit had led to a negative experience for them in a care setting.
Nearly all everyone in the audience was from either an EU country or somewhere else overseas – but there were also some British students present who were the children of immigrants.
Many described post-Brexit situations where patients or members of the public had responded negatively or rudely to them based on their accent or physical appearance. One delegate, a white British person, also highlighted that on one occasion a patient or relative had specifically asked her if she was “English” and expressed relief on being told that she was.
“Student after student took to the microphone to describe an incident where Brexit had led to a negative experience for them in a care setting”
Hand after hand was raised with a different and yet similar experience of being faced by obnoxious behaviour, usually only mitigated slightly by the modicum of respect gained by wearing an NHS uniform. There was little I could say in response; not that I really needed to.
The students painted a picture of a country I didn’t recognise from the one before the referendum. I was left feeling dispirited that the very people these students were learning to care for seemed more interested in being rude or to be frank, racist, than appreciative.
I was, however, also left full of admiration for these students, who were not only dealing with the pressures of learning to be a nurse and being in a different country. Their dedication and commitment to becoming a nurse and to helping the UK is worthy of high praise.
Let’s not forget, throughout most of its history, the NHS has relied on a large contingent of overseas staff to keep it going, and with 40,000 nurse vacancies we can’t afford to lose those who are.
As I said above, what I heard on Monday afternoon at St George’s in Tooting made me angry, and that is how I remain.
Whatever our opinion on whether we should leave or remain in the EU, we should show each other common decency. And we should be grateful to those who we have actively invited into our country to help support our system of healthcare that they have accepted the invitation.