The NHS is the largest employer in the UK, and one of the top five in the world. It employs nearly 1.4 million people across England, Scotland and Wales, with everyone from cleaners to brain surgeons on the payroll.

It is estimated that around 1 in 7 workers with the NHS are not from the UK, with 5.5% of all staff being recognised as EU nationals.

With the impact of the Brexit vote making it much harder to move and live freely in the UK, experts are concerned that this will lead to a skills shortage down the line, with staff needing to apply for ‘Settled Status’ or return to their country of origin. Let’s explore how Brexit could further impact this in healthcare and the wider NHS.

Will Brexit cause a shortage of highly skilled professionals? 

Search’s Skills Shortage report found that almost a third (30%) of healthcare professionals say Brexit is a key cause of concern. In light of this, Raj Sehgal, who sits on the board of the National Care Association, has called on the Government to include senior carers on its Shortage Occupation List (SOL) to help fill the 112,000 vacancies for care home staff.

For higher paid positions too, it is estimated that Nationals of other EU countries make up 9.1% of doctors in England’s hospital and community health services. They also make up 6.0% of all nurses and 5.8% of scientific, therapeutic and technical staff. The percentage of doctors and nurses with EU nationality grew between 2009 and 2016.

Lisa McLean, UK Managing Director for Search Nursing, Health & Social Care divisions, says this is a cause for concern across the industry

“Without doubt, Brexit will have an impact on the recruitment of suitable skilled workers within the Healthcare sector. It’s likely to cause a shortage in multiple areas of the profession, and as recruiters, we need to be even more diligent when it comes to attracting workers to our sector. This is possible through ensuring we have the building blocks in place for relevant training, support and guidance,” said Lisa.

What about nurses and carers?

According to the Search Skills Shortage report, the healthcare market has also felt the brunt of the skills shortage with 84% of respondents admitting they were suffering from a lack of skilled workers. Those surveyed said that work in the sector highlighted that healthcare organisations were understaffed by 26% with COVID-19 understandably exacerbating the situation.

When looking at the NHS official statistics released by the UK government, in 2015/16, 11% of those joining the NHS were EU nationals. In 2017/18, this had fallen to 8%, and in 2019 to 7%. For nurses the percentage of EU joiners fell from 19% in 2015/16 to 6% in 2019. Meanwhile, the proportion of nurses joining the NHS with non-EU nationality rose from 8% in 2015/16 to 22% in 2019.

In 2017/18, 12.8% of nurses leaving the NHS were EU nationals, up from 9% in 2015/16. This fell to 11% in 2019. 

From the 1st January 2021, non-EU workers and EU workers are treated the same, and subject to the same immigration rules. The new points-based immigration system makes exceptions for the majority of healthcare professionals, with fast track available for those with an NHS job ready and waiting, as well as visa options for qualified social workers – this is known as a Health and Care Work visa. Any applicant entering the UK through this type of visa is also exempt from the Immigration Health Surcharge, a one-off charge applied to most arriving migrant workers as part of the visa application process.

However, the lack of exceptions for other social care roles, such as nursing home workers or mental health practitioners, roles that are often highly populated by immigrants, are cause for concern.

 What can be done to help the situation?

All of these changes to the immigration laws are enshrined in the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act 2020 and are relevant from 1 January 2021. They apply to all workers not covered by Health and Care Work visa. Any EU nationals who do not have an official visa but wish to remain as a resident in the UK has until the 30th June 2021 to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme, a guarantee that they will retain their right to work in the UK indefinitely.

With Brexit done, it’s essential that the focus switches to keeping the EU staff that have already left, nearly 10,000 since the Brexit referendum. But with visa restrictions, and freedom of movement a thing of the past, proving that the UK is an attractive or viable option for EU workers is not an easy task. With the pay restrictions, points required, and a much stricter visa process, the immigration system could hinder any future foreign workers from living and working in the UK, particularly for smaller paid positions such as nursing or carers at lower levels. These jobs are still essential to keeping the healthcare industry moving.

One solution is to promote health and social care careers to the UK youth, with bursaries and financial support for those training, and making it easier for them to access pathways into the health and social care profession. Ensuring that these positions are paid fairly and appropriately, and that they receive the support they need as workers, is important when making these opportunities an attractive option for young people.

“The sector needs to focus on the future. Ensuring that we have adequate funds for training, and the professional progression to make healthcare a career path of choice, should limit the affect of the skills shortage. Working with a collaborate approach across the sector will be key to the success of minimising the risk posed by Brexit,” says Lisa

If you want to find your next role in healthcare, get in touch with the Search team today. Or if you are looking to build a winning team of permanent or temporary staff, we have candidates on hand to help.

To download a copy of the Search Skills Report, click here for more information.  

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