Unite: Tory use of EU nationals as “bargaining chips” in Brexit talks to blame for steep decline in European nurses

The Tories use of EU nationals as “bargaining chips” in the Brexit negotiations caused 10 per cent of European NHS nurses to resign last year, meaning attempts to reverse nursing staff shortages have failed for two years in a row.

New Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) registry figures show there are 3,000 less European Economic Area (EEA) nurses and midwifes working in the NHS in 2018 than there were a year ago.

Unite said the fall in such staff joining the NHS from Europe, as well as the spike in EU staff leaving the health service, was due to the government refusing to guarantee the post-Brexit residency status of EU citizens in order to gain leverage in the Brexit negotiations.

Around 4,000 EU nurses and midwifes left their jobs in 2017, an increase of 27 percent from year before and three time higher than the figures for 2013/14, the first year the NMC began recording departures.

Meanwhile just 800 joined the NHS from Europe – a substantial drop from the 6,382 nurses that joined in 2016/17 and the 9,389 who came in 2016/15.

Unite national officer for health Sarah Carpenter said there was a “modicum of relief” because the number of UK nurses grew by 1,321 over the same period, but added “the numbers are too small to make any real difference” to chronic staffing shortages.

In March 2018, there were 690,278 registered nurses and midwifes in the UK, a fall of 495 from 2017. Currently there are 40,000 vacant NHS posts.

The massive shortages have been exacerbated by the government’s replacement of nursing bursaries with fees of £9,000 a year and student loans, which caused NHS student numbers to drop by 700 in 2017.

Of the 227 EEA nurses who responded to an NMC survey that accompanied the release of the registry figures, 47 per cent agreed that “Brexit has encouraged me to consider working outside the UK, while 59 per cent said they are “planning to leave or have left the UK”.

Unite national officer for health, Sarah Carpenter, said that “many EU nationals have been made to feel decidedly unwelcome because of Brexit”.

“However the government’s use of them as bargaining chips in the EU negotiations has made the situation worse. So it is no surprise that the numbers of European nurses coming into the UK has dropped and that EU nurses are leaving in large numbers,” Carpenter said.

“Adding to this is the fact that through successive funding cuts the government has pushed the NHS to the brink, leaving the health service understaffed and overworked. No one can blame dedicated staff for leaving when the pressures are unsustainable and the work is underpaid.”

Carpenter added, “While the small rise in domestically trained nurses offers a modicum of relief, the numbers are too small to make any real difference. The situation is compounded by the fact the government recklessly scrapped NHS bursaries, causing a drop in student nurses.

“The NHS needs extra staff and extra funding or the exodus of qualified and experienced professionals from the EU and the UK will continue, leaving those that remain unable to cope with the ever increasing demands on the health service.”