This Thursday the UK will vote either to remain in or leave the European Union. Debate from both sides is heated and impassioned. But what will it mean for us as student nurses, our colleagues and those in our care?
I confess that, for me, the decision has always been clear cut. The European Union has provided me with unbridled opportunities to travel and experience different cultures, places and attitudes, which shape my clinical practice today. It has been instrumental in ensuring my rights in the work place, the wellbeing of my environment and that the food I eat, air I breathe and water I drink are safe.
Today, it provides me with countless co-workers and friends, many of whom are within the estimated 50,000 citizens from the European Economic Area who work as healthcare professionals in the NHS. Crucially though, the decision that we are all about to make is about no one person but the fate of our country and future of our health service.
”The European Union has provided me with unbridled opportunities to travel and experience different cultures, places and attitudes, which shape my clinical practice today”
The impact of the UK leaving the EU is enormously misunderstood and the likely effects upon the NHS have been especially contested - see the recent high-profile defection of MP Dr Sarah Wollaston from the Brexit to Vote Remain campaign. Whilst some pro-Leave campaigners have stated that no longer having to pay EU membership costs would equate to increased spending in public services, many of the figures they have released have been discredited. Labour party estimates released last week even suggest that there will be a £10.5bn cut to funding and further covert privatisation via the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
Of the 50,000 EU foreign nationals employed in the NHS, approximately 9,000 are doctors and 18,000 are nurses and midwives. In the event of a Brexit, these professionals may be unable or unwilling to acquire work visas, and their absence would leave a tangible skills and staffing deficit. This at a time when bursaries are being cut and junior doctors are revolting, home-grown staff are less likely to adequately fill these gaps. As student nurses, we know first-hand that short-staffing consistently undermines the care of those who are most vulnerable.
”Elsewhere in the NHS, a Brexit vote would threaten legislation that exists to protect our employment rights, prior to and following qualification”
Elsewhere in the NHS, a Brexit vote would threaten legislation that exists to protect our employment rights, prior to and following qualification; including fair working hours, annual leave and maternity and paternity pay. Similarly, legislation to protect the disabled and ensure safety of medicinal products and medical devices are within a tranche of EU-led policies that Brexit campaigners have threatened to place on a metaphorical bonfire if they are successful.
If we leave the EU, there will be less money for medical research, both within Britain and across Europe, when looking to combat multi-national antibiotic resistance and pandemic infections. Also, due to pharmaceutical legislation, only whilst still a member of the EU, companies do not need to test new drugs separately in the UK and a vote to leave may cause an increase in medication costs to cover this additional expenditure. Research and pharmaceutical pricing will affect all people globally, including those in our care.
Whilst an EU member nation, we allow free movement of people into the UK who are then eligible for care in the NHS. However, though more people enter services, the cost of treatment can be reclaimed from their ‘home’ nation and – contrary to popular belief – they don’t actually cost us anything. Leaving the EU would stop free movement, suggesting that there would be fractionally less demand for the NHS, but leaving now may mean that we and our services are less equipped to serve those who remain.
“A vote to leave the EU will have a real, palpable, negative effect upon the NHS”
I feel very strongly that a vote to leave the EU will have a real, palpable, negative effect upon the NHS, our colleagues and the people in our care - but I need to stress that these are my opinions. I am not an economist and I do not claim to understand all the facets of this highly contested and emotive debate. I hope that by writing this blog, I might encourage anyone who may not have previously thought to vote on Thursday to reconsider, and to arm themselves with the facts to make what is likely to be the biggest political decision of our lifetime.
As student nurses, we are advocates for our patients and this extends beyond our wards and community teams into the wider political arena. Whether you vote to leave or remain, I hope that your decision – as mine – is grounded in a willingness to do the right thing for those in our care. As student nurses, we consistently underestimate the magnitude of our voice, but we have to speak in order to be heard. Please cast your vote on Thursday.
Hazel Nash is Student Nursing Times’ student editor, mental health branch.
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