The UK’s vote to leave the European Union looks set to alter the course of our fortune for many generations to come. It will dramatically affect the healthcare sector in terms of funding, staffing and scientific advancement. Healthcare professionals across the continent will have watched closely as the referendum votes were counted. Both the Leave and the Remain campaigns made much of healthcare, putting forward claims and counterclaims to support their respective arguments.
Those in favour of leaving the EU said migration from other European countries put increased strain on our health services, and that leaving would be a way to free up precious resources. Meanwhile, the British Medical Journal, in an unexpected move, came out in support of remaining, and said that leaving could result in a diminished pot of money for the NHS. But what does the result mean for healthcare recruitment?
At present, most EU citizens have the right to live and work in the UK under European law, and they can take their families with them to the UK if they can support themselves without relying on public funds. The vote to leave may see this state of affairs change. Right now the UK has access to a pool of healthcare practitioners far larger than that provided within its own borders. A vote to remain will mean that access to this pool continues. However, there is no guarantee the talent it contains will necessarily opt to work in Britain just because it is permitted to do so. The current issues of how best to attract top healthcare professionals, which would strengthen the UK’s appeal in terms of employment opportunities and standard of life when compared to other northern European countries, will also remain part of the recruitment landscape.
As Brexit becomes a reality and the UK disentangles itself from the legislation that defines EU governance, healthcare recruitment in the UK will certainly feel the effects. It’s no secret that during the national nursing staff shortage, recruiting parties have turned time and time again to other EU countries in their efforts to fill vacancies. Simon Stevens, current NHS England chief Executive, has said the NHS has benefited “enormously” from the recruitment of some 130,000 European Union doctors, nurses and care-workers.
It’s not just frontline medical staff that Brexit will put out of reach for recruiters. Biomedical scientists, a group already in short supply in the UK, will be far more difficult to enlist. All types of scientists opposed Brexit, almost unanimously agreeing that a departure from the EU would be bad news for them – biomedical and pharmaceutical colleagues included. High profile household names, (one of whom is Stephen Hawking), signed a letter in support of remaining in the EU. As well as stressing their determination to further scientific endeavour on the British Isles, the letter stated the signees’ belief that recruitment within medicine, as a branch of science, would be undermined by a vote to go.
Even as part of the EU, those seeking to recruit nurses and clinicians for British hospitals and other healthcare providers already struggle. Just as it’s impossible to predict with any accuracy how Brexit will impact the UK’s long-term economic health, we can’t truly say for sure how healthcare will be impacted. However, it seems safe to say that it will not help in tackling the current shortage of healthcare professionals. That’s because Brexit will likely bring broader restrictions on EU workers gaining employment in the newly autonomous UK.
In a much-needed attempt to plug the ever widening gap, the industry could potentially lobby the UK government to increase visa quotas for healthcare workers hailing from overseas. A decade ago, restrictions were placed on the numbers of South African healthcare professionals permitted to work in the UK. Reviewing and lifting this restriction could be one example of how the Brexit effect on healthcare could be partially negated. As our population expands and our workforce retires, another option would be to place nursing and healthcare professionals permanently on the skills shortage list.
Of course, it won’t only be foreign workers whose employment choices are changed. UK-born citizens, currently permitted to move to and work in any other EU country, may find themselves suddenly limited. Armed with British nursing qualifications, for example, a nurse can currently set out to find employment in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain or Sweden.
How Brexit will change this scenario for those already working and living abroad, and those hoping to do so is unclear. However, it seems likely that it will become much more difficult to up sticks and begin a new life in an EU country as a medical professional. Ultimately, this could mean more British-born doctors, nurses, radiographers, pharmacists, occupational therapists and other healthcare professionals opting to stay and serve in the country where they were born. For healthcare recruiters this could prove the silver lining from Brexit. It seems clear that drastic measures will be required if we are to provide the UK’s healthcare services with the skilled, experienced and permitted-to-work professionals they need.
Ben Lawrence is sales director at Your World Healthcare