Health and care services have grown so used to adapting to change, that they might wonder if Charles Darwin was actually writing about them. When it comes to evolving effectively to the effects of Brexit, they’ll be hoping that he was.
Ever since the public voted to leave in June 2016, there have been profound concerns about what this might mean in practical terms not only for the nursing profession as the largest single workforce in the NHS but also the wider health and care services.
That’s why the RCN came together with a group of health and social care organisations to set up the Cavendish Coalition. Our mutual aim was to ensure that the workforce implications of Brexit, and thus the safe running of health and care services across the UK were not forgotten in the negotiations between the UK government and its counterparts in Brussels.
From guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals, to ensuring the continuation of the mutual recognition of professional qualifications across Europe, and that vital medicines and products can still arrive in the quantity required post 29 March, Brexit threw up questions that shook the system from head to toe. And some, as we approach the ‘meaningful vote’ in just a few days, remain up in the air.
The government clarified the right to remain for EU nationals late last year, although this didn’t come until two years after the referendum result, when the number of EU nurses leaving the NHS had already overtaken those joining. Just last week, a hospital in Germany was using Brexit as a means to prise Polish nurses from the UK, proving that we as a country cannot afford to be complacent.
But the real threat now and what should seriously focus minds, is not necessarily leaving the European Union, but leaving the European Union without a deal.
As well as potentially causing significant economic damage which would restrict the government’s ability to invest in the nursing workforce, a ‘No Deal’ exit would mean no transition period. This means no certainty over immigration rights for nurses and other health care professionals wanting to come here after 29 March. For a health and care service that relies heavily on nurses from the continent, and with 41,000 vacancies in the NHS in England alone, this could do serious harm to patient care.
With the Department of Health and Social Care and devolved administrations making preparations for a‘No Deal’,contingency plans talk of booking extra airplanes, shipping lanes and warehouse space in order to transport and store medicines and equipment. It’s clear that the stakes for the provision of safe and effective health care couldn’t be higher.
Put simply, a ‘No Deal’ exit from the EU is the worst possible outcome for healthcare staff, services and ultimately patients. It must be avoided.
Dame Donna Kinnair, Acting Chief Executive and General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing