Expert advice

If ministers fear Brexit’s impact on football, what do they think it’ll do to the NHS? 

Nursing – like top-flight football – can’t afford to see foreign talent turned away

Nursing – like top-flight football – can’t afford to see foreign talent turned away


Picture: iStock

Government ministers were recently reported to be ‘battling’ to stop Brexit bringing ‘bureaucratic chaos’ to the football transfer market.

The Home Office and football authorities discussed how to deal with the new immigration regime starting in January 2021, after the end of the current scheduled Brexit transition period. The UK government is concerned that some football clubs have not grasped that this will mean European players losing their automatic right to come and play for British teams.

Post-referendum slump

Brexit uncertainties are already hitting closer to home, with latest figures from the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) showing that, for the second year in a row, the number of new European Union (EU) nurses registering to practise in the UK has dropped below 1,000.

‘NHS nursing is not, and never has been ‘self-sufficient.’ This is one dynamic that it shares with professional football’

Only three years ago, before the Brexit vote, this figure was more than 9,000. The NMC data also show that the overall number of EU nurses on the UK register declined by about 6% between March 2018 and March this year.

With nursing shortages a drag anchor on NHS improvement, we can ill afford to cut off any major supply route. There has been much talk of ‘self-sufficiency’ in NHS nursing but little sign of it happening, or any concrete suggestions about how it might happen. There has been no significant increase in the number of new nursing students being educated in the UK, and no sign of any marked improvement in nurse retention. 

Reliance on open borders 

NHS nursing is not, and never has been ‘self-sufficient.’ This is one dynamic that it shares with professional football – a reliance on recruiting foreign talent. Only one third of the starting players for the two so-called ‘English’ Premier League teams that have reached the European Championship final are British, and neither club manager is British.

If the Home Office has time to talk with football authorities, ministers must also work to keep the NHS open to international recruitment. To do otherwise would be to score a dangerous own goal.


James Buchan is professor in the faculty of health and social sciences at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

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