Expert advice

Recruitment contradictions only confuse the post-Brexit plan

Most leave voters want the UK to continue recruiting EU nurses, but how will that work?

Most leave voters want the UK to continue recruiting EU nurses, but how will that work?

Picture: iStock

Travel broadens the mind, apparently. I have just returned from the land down under, and the final news item I read as I left Australia was about how the country looks likely to overtake the UK as a destination for fee-paying international students.  

The article argued that the impact of Brexit will make the UK a less attractive destination for international students from Asia, and Australia will benefit.

Too few nurses trained here

Fast forward 24 hours, and the first news item I read on arrival in the UK was about farms in England struggling to attract temporary Romanian labour to help with the harvests. Brexit-related concerns were given as the reasons, including the weaker pound. 

I was not surprised by these reports, having just completed some work with the charity the Health Foundation, which carries out healthcare policy analysis. We found the number of EU nurses coming to the UK has dropped drastically since mid-2016; more than 6,000 EU nurses registered in the UK in 2016-17, compared with little more than 800 in 2017-18.  

Factor in the relatively low increase in the number of nurses being trained in the UK, and it’s clear why England is struggling with tens of thousands of nursing vacancies.

Contradictory message

What did come as a surprise were the results of an opinion poll also commissioned by the Health Foundation, which found 71% of the UK adult population is in favour of continuing to recruit nurses from the EU – including two thirds of those who voted leave in the Brexit referendum. 

So two thirds of those in favour of tighter immigration and leaving the free mobility EU single market somehow also want the UK to continue to recruit EU nurses. 

The deeper we get into the messy reality of Brexit, the more these contradictions are emerging. Perhaps we all need to travel a bit more.


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


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