What impact will Brexit have on our doctors and nurses?
PUBLISHED: 05:30 29 October 2019 | UPDATED: 07:07 29 October 2019
The boss of Ipswich and Colchester hospitals is "very concerned" about the potential impact of Brexit on European doctors and nurses - and even fears some may go home for Christmas and not come back.
Nick Hulme said his trust, one of the largest in the country, is taking the potential repercussions of an EU exit seriously as it emerged there were more than 4,000 nursing vacancies in the east - which frontline workers fear may rise after we leave.
However, Mr Hulme said Ipswich and Colchester hospitals have some of the lowest vacancies in the east, thanks to a successful international recruitment programme - and for him, it was more about whether EU staff want to remain at the trust longer term.
"Most of our staff will have the right to remain," he said. "It's more about if they want to remain here longer term, particularly if families want to come over. How easy will it be for them to join them?"
Mr Hulme also admitted there had been sadness among European staff after the referendum result, and called for more decisions to be made so the trust could prepare for the future.
MORE: Hospital boss tells European NHS staff to make preparations for Brexit
"It was palpable to see how upset our European staff were - we have reassured them as to how valued they are," he added.
"They may [return home for Christmas and not return]. It's clearly something we will have to watch.
"The sooner we have clarity on the rules [of Brexit] the better."
It comes as Mr Hulme wrote to European staff at both hospitals, explaining how Brexit may affect them.
Dr Dan Poulter, a mental health doctor and MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, said it was vital to make it clear that we want European nurses and doctors to stay in Britain.
He also said golden hellos, where doctors and nurses are handed cash incentives of up to £10,000 to relocate to places like Suffolk and Essex, alongside expanding the number of universities offering nursing and medical courses, were potential solutions to the nursing and medical staffing "crisis" in the east.
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Latest workforce figures reveal there are 4,231 nursing vacancies in the east - which means 10% of all nursing vacancies in England are in our region - and there are also 1,562 medical vacancies.
"In the east of England we have less training nurse placements, and less universities that train nurses than other parts of the country," he said.
"People training to be a nurse move into a job in an area they trained in. The challenge is to extend the number of nursing training universities in the east and support our units to increase nurse training capacity. The government is putting more money into the NHS and that is to be welcomed, however there also needs to be more money put into workforce education and training.
"The budget for this has been shrinking in recent years and it's something that hopefully Matt Hancock will be addressing."
'The tap has been turned off'
On whether the staffing issues will get better after Brexit, Dr Poulter added: "When I was healthcare minister, the UK faced rules and regulations to do with medical education and training. It meant that over the last 10 years or so it has been getting increasingly difficult for Britain to recruit nurses, particularly from places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Africa, the Philippines and Malaysia. We want nurses in these countries to come and work in the UK. The advantage of leaving is that we will be able to not be constrained by these rules and it will mean we are able to employ people outside the EU.
"There was set criteria, it would often be based on the number of hours they had done in their nursing degrees, but it should really be about how competent people are as nurses and doctors.
"These EU based rules have been to the detriment of that kind of recruitment. The tap has been turned off in recent years.
"The key thing is to make it clear that those workers and doctors from all over Europe that they are very welcome to stay. We want them to stay."
'Brexit has already had an impact' - Workers on frontline speak out
However nurse Helen Maw, who recently brought the issue of staff shortages to the streets of Bury St Edmunds, warned East Anglia was around 5,000 nurses short and Brexit had made things worse: "It's already had an impact. We've got overseas nurses who are now not coming and some that have already gone back in anticipation of what the fallout might be from Brexit."
And Dr Devender Khurana, from the eastern branch of the British Medical Association (BMA), warned that these recent figures reveal just how much we rely on health workers coming from overseas to work in the NHS.
"There's a huge risk Brexit will see fewer medical staff wanting to work here, due to uncertainty over immigration status," he said.
"At a time when the NHS is already struggling to meet patient demand, we simply cannot afford for these pressures to get any worse and must be able to continue to recruit and retain healthcare professionals from abroad."
EU workers 'encouraged to apply for settled status'
A Government spokeswoman said there are 17,500 more nurses on our wards compared with 2010.
"We're taking action to recruit and retain more dedicated staff, including giving every nurse a £1,000 personal training budget and providing funding to support an extra 5,000 nursing university places each year," she added.
"EU workers play a vital role across the health and social care system and we want them to continue to do so.
"Over 6,600 more have joined the NHS since the referendum, and we continue to encourage those living and working in the UK to apply for settled status."