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The government must look beyond short-term solutions to workforce challenges

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As the NHS continues to face workforce challenges, the attention this week has focused on how the recruitment of people from outside of the UK might look after the UK’s departure from the European Union.

As Nursing Times reported on Tuesday, the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has published its report on the impact of migration from the European Economic Area in the UK.

A key finding of the MAC was that European migrants contribute much more to the UK health sector than they consume in services, and that migration had not resulted in any reduction in the quality of healthcare.

The report offered several recommendations for the UK’s immigration system.

“The government has not supplied any clear projections of the number of staff that will be needed in the future”

It recommended that EU citizens should not be given preferential access to visas after the UK’s departure from the EU, and that the government should make it easier for highly-skilled migrants from all countries to move to the UK. The report also suggested that restrictions on the ability of highly-skilled workers to stay in the UK should be lifted.

What follows might seem a rather confusing narrative, as the whole matter is confused and no one is apparently getting any strategic grip on it.

The government has not supplied any clear projections of the number of staff that will be needed in the future. However, it is not just the number of staff in the NHS that matters, but also the number of staff in social care and the independent sector.

While the changes recommended by the MAC would allow a wider recruitment of nurses and doctors, there is still a problem for other areas of health and social care. What will be the impact on healthcare if the UK experiences shortages in care workers because of restrictions on the number of EU migrants?

These workers are currently deemed “unskilled”, and the Independent Care Group also warned this week that these roles should be reclassified to avoid deepening the workforce crisis.

“You have a potential disaster approaching”

Surely, if there are fewer carers to look after those with long-term health problems, this will add additional pressure on already overstretched services. Hasn’t someone woken up to connect the dots and see that the health and care workforces are inextricably linked?

It also appears that even if a Brexit deal is made, it will take some time before agreements on numbers can be implemented. 

Add into the mix the demographic time-bomb, with, for example, a huge proportion of nurses retiring in the next few years, and you have a potential disaster approaching.

The workforce issues that we currently face remain complex and challenging – almost enigmatic. 

It is important that the government does not only look at short-term solutions.

And whatever immigration policy is finally agreed on after the Brexit negotiations, it is vital that the wider health and social care workforce is not put under further strain.

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