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Brexit could cause hospital staffing crisis


By Alex Spencer


Addenbrookes Hospital Picture: Keith Heppell
Addenbrookes Hospital Picture: Keith Heppell

A staffing crisis that could cause routine operations to be cancelled may be looming for Cambridgeshire hospitals after Brexit.

Figures show that more than one in five doctors at Papworth Hospital are EU nationals, as are 14 percent of doctors at CUH, which includes Addenbrookes.

EU citizens and family members who have been in the UK for five years by the end of 2020 will be able to apply for “settled status”, meaning they are free to go on living and working in the UK indefinitely. But problems may arise when hospitals - who regularly recruit from the EU - are faced with finding new staff if freedom of movement is not guaranteed following Brexit.

New data analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals that both Cambridge University Hospitals and Papworth Hospital have much higher numbers of EU doctors and nurses working on their frontline than the UK average and so are more exposed to this risk than most.

A spokesman for Cambridge University Hospitals said: “The hospital operates, in the main, with adequate levels of staff so the loss of any potentially impacts on service. In the event that the service became unsatisfactory, or safety was compromised, well-rehearsed contingency measures would be put in place to improve matters. This could, for example, include the postponement of routine surgery to improve flow through the hospital and our ability to treat the sickest people.”

He explained the impact of losing even five percent of frontline staff: “We have 1229 EU staff, 1655 non EU staff and 7407 UK staff. The loss of approximately 5% of our workforce would have significant impact on the Trust and may result in costly contingency plans having to be put in place, including increasing our reliance on agency workers.

“Our hospitals are reliant on the skills and knowledge of our staff from the EU, with over 10% of the workforce identified as a non-UK EU national. We continue to welcome staff from around the world and are working hard to reassure and support staff during these uncertain times.”

The hospital has been running advice days for EU staff, working with immigration specialists and monitoring the situation as it progresses.

The British Medical Association East of England regional council chair, Dr Ian Hume, said: “With Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust trusts among those with the highest percentage of doctors who are EU nationals outside of London, many staff working there will be understandably worried about what the future holds for them.

“Indeed, a recent BMA survey showed that over three quarters of doctors were not convinced that their rights would be protected in the event of a no-deal. The Prime Minister must therefore outline how their rights will be safeguarded in this scenario.

“EU doctors are a vital part of the NHS and uncertainty over their future will potentially have a huge impact on the delivery of care in the area, particularly if they are considering leaving the NHS.

“As well as the impact on staffing, Brexit will be damaging for many aspects of healthcare in Britain which is why the BMA believe that the public are given an informed vote on any agreement. Doctors and other EU staff working in our hospitals have played a valuable role in the delivery of care for patients. The government must now in turn show them just how valued they are.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Royal Papworth Hospital said: “We very much hope and expect the vast majority of our EU staff will remain at the hospital after the UK leaves the EU, and we continue to recruit proactively in the EU. Since the referendum, we have not seen a significant change in the number of EU staff wanting to work in the hospital. However, of course we are keen to know what leaving the European Union will mean for EU staff wanting to work in the UK and we continue to monitor the situation.”

He added they have been running a recruitment campaign that has seen nurse vacancies drop to “just over 10 percent”.

Senior figures in the NHS warn hospital trusts with large numbers of frontline staff who are EU nationals may soon not be able to fill these posts, with knock-on effects on waiting times, operating theatre capacity and beds.

Recruitment from the EU has “plummeted”, said Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, warning that if numbers of nurses continued to fall then waiting times would go up dramatically.

“We would have to close capacity because we couldn’t man the beds or run the theatres. Costs would go up because we had to rely on agency staff and they are more expensive.”

The question mark over what will happen when Britain leaves the EU has accelerated a staff crisis that was already well underway, particularly within nursing. There are now 41,000 nursing vacancies across England - a shortage level that the Royal College of Nursing warned last year would make the NHS “unsafe” - and annual turnover is more than 15%.

There is also a shortage of doctors, with 11,500 vacancies recorded in the latest figures from NHS Improvement figures, up from 10,800 the year before.



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