Why the NHS needs a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal

We must break the deadlock and reassure our EU nurses, says the RCN’s Dame Donna Kinnair

We must break the deadlock and reassure our EU nurses, says the RCN’s Dame Donna Kinnair

Picture: Alamy

We have almost 40,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS in England alone and the uncertainty that has followed the 2016 EU referendum has not helped.

Since the decision to leave the EU, we have seen more than 10,000 nurses and midwives from the EU leave our workforce. This is a trend we cannot allow to continue.

Nurses from the EU need certainty

While we need urgent action and investment to expand our domestic workforce, nursing staff from across the EU play a vital part in providing care to patients in the UK. Nurse leaders have told us that recruiting nurses from the EU is essential for the proper functioning of the UK's health services.

Despite this, we are losing our EU nurses at an alarming rate. We need to give them some certainty. It took far too long to get clarity over settled status, and we now know that Spain will no longer recognise practice hours gained outside of the EU – a situation that has the potential to be a significant risk to retention of valuable members of staff here in future.

Across the NHS and social care, healthcare teams are struggling to meet patient need; shifts are short-staffed, what was thought of as winter crisis is now visible all year round and people in need are left without care. I know from speaking to our members that we urgently need to find an approach that places a greater emphasis on increasing our workforce in the UK, while recognising nursing as a global profession.

‘The free movement of nurses across the world has made the UK a world leader in healthcare’

We have to be able to recruit nurses from outside of the UK to keep the health and social care system functioning. But in order to do this we need an immigration system that moves away from using salary levels as the main indicator of skill, a point I made to a House of Commons committee.

Expertise should cross borders

Brexit may prevent the cross-border sharing of knowledge of skills. Just as population health isn’t restricted by borders, neither should the sharing of nursing expertise be. The free movement of nurses across the world has made the UK a world leader in healthcare; losing this expertise will push the UK down the pecking order as an attractive place to work.

We have been provided with a long-term plan for the NHS and are currently working out our long-term plan for the workforce. But our nurses from the EU are feeling undervalued, despite the fact they work in a system that relies on their skills and expertise and is desperate to retain them.

Recruiting skilled nurses from outside of the UK means competing with many other countries that are experiencing nursing shortages. It is not easy. We are also reliant on a good supply of medicines from the EU to treat our patients.

A way to break the deadlock

I speak to nursing staff delivering care on the ground and they tell me it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so in this environment. They are having to cover shifts and work without breaks.

Nurses from across the world tell me they love working here and feel part of an incredible and unique team doing the very best for their patients every time they go to work. We have to be able to support them in what they do.

What we now need is a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal to break the deadlock in parliament. Perhaps then, we can again focus on the NHS we are all so proud to be part of.

Dame Donna Kinnair is RCN acting chief executive and general secretary

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