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'Chaos' ahead if nursing workforce not prepared for Brexit

The nursing sector will need a transitional period to brace for the impact of Brexit as the NHS struggles to retain EU nurses

The nursing sector will need a transitional period to brace for the impact of Brexit, according to the findings of a government report.

Brexit and the Labour Market is a report from the Select Committee on Economic Affairs analysing how the prospect and process of leaving the European Union will affect industries and sectors in Britain which have become dependent on EU labour.

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As the NHS struggles to retain and employ EU nurses – until recently a dependable reservoir of talent – the report called for an increased focus on training and retention of home-grown staff in order to cushion the blow of staff from Europe leaving posts in the wake of Brexit.

Committee chair Michael Forsyth said: ‘Businesses will have to accept that immigration from the European Union is going to reduce and adapt accordingly. Some firms will need to raise wages to attract domestic workers.

‘Our 2008 report on immigration warned that the employment of migrant workers could lead to businesses neglecting skills and training for British workers. As the recruitment and retention problem in the nursing sector highlights, these fears have been realised and training for the domestic workforce needs urgently to be given a higher priority.’

In the report, it was shown that the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has seen a 90% drop in nurses from the European Economic Area (EEA) signing up to its regulatory register since the vote to leave the EU last June. They blamed the ‘uncomfortable environment’ generated by current uncertainty over their status in the UK.

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RCN chief executive Janet Davies said: ‘A sudden loss of EU staff would result in chaos for our health and social care services.

‘It’s crucial that there is a transition period so that patients don’t suffer the dangerous consequences of an abrupt drop in the number of staff, which we are already seeing. There are already 40,000 posts unfilled in England – the NHS simply can't withstand more.

‘The government needs to take urgent action to boost the number of nurses here in the UK if we are to stop Brexit from further damaging our health services. This can only happen by ensuring that the UK educates enough new staff, retains those we already have, and gives nursing staff the fair pay deal they deserve.’

The RCN expressed concern about ‘poor workforce planning’ leading to a shortage of new nurses being trained domestically. The number of applications to study a nursing course in 2017 fell by 23%, due to the introduction of tuition fees and loans replacing bursaries.

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Proposing a transition period to allow the NHS to prepare for a shortage of EU nurses, the RCN said it should last ‘at least four years’ to avoid an immediate switch for a decades-old system to ‘something completely alien’.

High turnover was highlighted as a problem in health and social care by the Nuffield Trust, who mentioned the need for a ‘flow of new people’ to fill up positions. It was also shown that in 2016 the Migration Advisory Committee found that migrant nurses were paid £6,000 less than equivalent British workers.