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OPINION

'Nurses and midwives could be on the first plane home'

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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out why there is such a huge crisis in nursing and care worker numbers in the UK.

Dave Prentis

Anyone who works in the NHS, residential care homes or who cares for people in the community, could tell you that there simply aren’t enough people employed to provide the level of care that is needed.

They will say the numbers of staff have been cut substantially since 2010, despite every promise from Conservative politicians that the NHS is safe in their hands.

One of the coalition government’s first moves was to slash by a fifth the number of training places open to student nurses.

So when the Francis report into care failings at the Mid-Staffordshire Foundation Trust, and then National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance both called for more nurses to be employed on wards, there simply weren’t enough newly qualified staff to meet the demand.

Had the government not cut the number of student places on offer, we would have more newly qualified nurses coming onto the wards. No wonder NHS trusts have had to significantly increase the amount they spend on agency staff, and recruit from overseas.

But now the government wants to shut down that avenue too. The threat from UKIP and the need to appear tougher on immigration does much to explain this latest wheeze from politicians.

Alongside the Immigration Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, are new rules that mean any worker from overseas, whose job doesn’t feature on the official occupational shortages list, is going to have to leave the UK if they aren’t earning more than £35,000 six years after coming here.

This is all about the government trying to look firm on immigration to a sceptical public. It’s likely this will be a bigger factor the closer we get to the inevitable Tory leadership contest.

Only last week we heard home secretary Theresa May telling the Conservative Party conference that high levels of immigration make it “impossible to build a cohesive society”. Apparently, the UK has no need for net migration at current levels and the contribution of migrants to the economy is “close to zero”. Worryingly, the prime minister seems to agree.

Artists, ballet dancers, musicians, chefs and graphic designers all make it onto the government’s occupational shortage list, and so are exempt from the new immigration rules due to come into force next

year. But not nurses and midwives (unless they are neonatal specialists working in intensive care), care home assistants or home-care workers. They could suddenly find themselves on the first plane home.

The NHS must be able to continue recruiting overseas over the next few years while the thousands of students mid-way through their nursing degrees graduate.

Similar challenges face the social care sector, which - because of long hours, low pay and the challenging nature of the work - suffers from one of the highest staff turnover rates in the economy. Our ageing population means more and more people will need to be looked after, either in their own homes or in residential care. It has been estimated the sector will need to employ another million workers by 2025, yet around 10% of the existing workforce is from overseas.

Our NHS is full of a rich tapestry of nationalities, who have come to the UK to provide the best possible care.

The government needs to realise the damage its new immigration rules will do to the NHS and to our social care services. Ministers must stop seeing migration as a drain, but as a gain for our public services and our communities.

Dave Prentis is UNISON general secretary

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