Crisis, what crisis?
The news that there has been a drop in the numbers of nurses from the European Union registering to work in Britain caused consternation in mid-June when the Health Foundation published comparative figures for July 2016 and April 2017. On reflection though, there are three words in that sentence which need qualification – ‘news’, ‘drop’ and ‘consternation’.
Is this statistic really ‘news’, in the sense of being information which we didn’t have before, which is unexpected, which comes across as new? In reality it hardly fits any of those criteria. The UK has long depended on recruitment from overseas to make up for the shortfall of British candidates for the nursing profession, and since 2008 the majority of international nurses registering in the UK have come from other EU countries. So no-one should really be surprised that the deeply uncertain status of EU workers after Brexit is deterring lots of otherwise suitable nurses from moving here.
The so-called ‘drop’ in the flow could more properly be described as a precipitous, and probably irreversible, plunge – from 1304 last July to 46 in April. That’s a 96% fall! Taking England’s health and social care together there is already a shortfall of 30,000 nurses. With hospitals and nursing homes complaining about acute recruitment problems – according to the Royal College of Nursing one in nine posts are currently vacant – the situation is worsening by the day.
So how did the Department of Health, which must take the major responsibility for the crisis as it has refused for many years to undertake sensible workforce planning, react to this fresh alert? A DH statement drew attention to the number of home-grown nurses in training ‘to ensure that the NHS has the nurses it needs’, which sounds to me more like complacency than the ‘consternation’ expressed elsewhere. The statement added that the future of EU nationals in staffing Britain’s health and care system would be ‘a priority’ in the Brexit negotiations – along, that is, with all the other pressing priorities in that inevitably immensely complex process.
The figures, which the Health Foundation winkled out from the Nursing and Midwifery Council, have merely put some detail on a crisis which was easily predictable and which will have – is already having – dire consequences for the quality of care. The Foundation described its finding as a ‘wake-up call’, but on this evidence one has to wonder whether the Secretary of State is not so much asleep as comatose.
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