Post-Brexit nurse shortage costs NHS £61m a year, new study finds            

‘Our research sends a clear message: political decisions impacting immigration and workers' expectations about the future, like Brexit, can have far-reaching effects on sectors dependent on skilled foreign labour, such as the NHS and the wider healthcare sector.’

The number of EU and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) nurses coming to the UK has significantly dropped since Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016. A report by the Nuffield Trust showed that nurses coming from Europe to Britain decreased by 28 percent from 38,992 in September 2016 to 28,007 in September 2021.

Mark Dayan, Brexit programme leader and a co-author of the report, said: “Before the EU referendum, the UK heavily relied on EU staff. Now we can’t get the same people due to free movement restrictions.”

A separate study by the University of Surrey published in November, highlights the financial implications Britain’s falling EU nursing workforce has had on the NHS. It estimates that the cost of having fewer EU nurses in Britain is £61.9m a year. In the three years following the referendum, the loss of 100 EU nurses per 1,000 staff has increased emergency readmission rates for elective patients by 2.2 percent annually. This amounts to just short of 30,000 readmissions per year, costing the NHS £61.9m annually, the researchers found.

Dr Giuseppe Moscelli, a co-author and principal investigator of the ‘Foreign Nurses and Hospital Quality: Evidence from Brexit’ report, said that the research confirmed that NHS hospitals saw a significant decrease in new EU nurses, and as a result, “the quality of care for planned treatments deteriorated.”

“This change not only affects patient care but also poses financial challenges for the NHS, as unplanned readmissions bring extra costs, estimated at around £61.9 million per year. This amount could have funded around 2,000 more senior nurses or 2,500 entry-level registered nurses, helping to alleviate the NHS’s current staffing crisis.” 

The study was funded under a research award from the Health Foundation. It investigated 144 acute care hospital Trusts in the NHS from July 2015 to June 2019. The research concluded that prior to the Brexit referendum, around 22 nurses from the EU per 1,000 staff joined the NHS annually. After the referendum, this rate fell by 66 percent.

Post-referendum, the number of non-EU nurses joining the NHS has increased by 50 percent, but the average total number of nurses in each hospital Trust has fallen by 19 workers in the three years post-Brexit. 

“Our research sends a clear message: political decisions impacting immigration and workers’ expectations about the future, like Brexit, can have far-reaching effects on sectors dependent on skilled foreign labour, such as the NHS and the wider healthcare sector,” said Dr Giuseppe Moscelli.

“In particular, skilled workers tend to have attractive employment opportunities elsewhere and are often the first to refrain from migrating once the uncertainty about their life prospects in a new country increases,” he concluded.

The study follows the home secretary’s announcement of a five-point plan to reduce net migration by 30,000 a year. James Cleverley’s plan includes cutting the number of migrant workers and their dependants entering the UK, making it far harder for employers to bring in overseas staff, including in the NHS and social care sector.

But experts warn it also risks causing further chaos in the already stretched health sector and damaging the UK’s long-term growth prospects.

Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, which represents large private care home providers, warned that the government is making it harder for care providers to recruit foreign workers.

“If the government now wants to move away from international recruitment as the solution to fixing the social care workforce crisis, it must act swiftly and invest in improving the pay and conditions to drive domestic recruitment,” said Green.

Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said that the government is “playing roulette with essential services just to placate its backbenchers and the far right.”

“But if ministers stopped ducking the difficult issues, and reformed social care as they have long promised, there wouldn’t be such a shortage of workers,” she added.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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