Post-Brexit immigration plans could be 'very damaging’ to healthcare sector, experts warn

Changes to visa regime that could complicate recruitment a ‘source of massive concern’

Healthcare leaders yesterday slammed Theresa May’s tough stance on post-Brexit immigration as ‘very damaging’, warning of potential knock-on impacts for employers and their staff if recruitment becomes more challenging when the UK leaves the EU. 

The prime minister yesterday outlined her draft Brexit plan to delegates at the CBI Annual Conference, which included a tougher approach to immigration to secure full control of the UK’s borders, and stop EU migrants “jumping the queue” to live and work in the UK. 

Her comments were met with criticism from industry experts, with Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, saying they were of “huge concern,” and stressing the need to get immigration policy right in order to put patients first. 

“The recommendations on salary thresholds and having no need for a so-called ‘lower skilled’, lower wage route into the UK would cut off the supply of nurses from overseas and there would be no mechanism for employing people into care worker roles,” he said. 

“It would be completely unacceptable to allow vital social care services to close under the strain of not having the people required to provide the necessary care.” 

Concerns over shortages of staff in the healthcare system have been an ongoing issue during the Brexit process, with home secretary Sajid Javid removing the immigration cap on doctors arriving from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) in June. 

Earlier this month, the Cavendish Coalition and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research warned the NHS could be short of 51,000 nurses following Brexit, with reports suggesting some hospitals were offering to reimburse fees in order for EU employees to meet post-Brexit requirements. 

Tom Hadley, director of policy and professional services at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), told People Management that further complications to recruitment in the healthcare sector should be of significant concern to industry leaders. 

“We have seen for months that demands for healthcare staff are increasing and the availability of candidates is decreasing, and any changes to immigration that could make recruiting harder are a source of massive concern,” he said. 

Changes to immigration policy would not just prove an issue for recruiters, he added, but would also have a knock-on effect on employers, patient safety, and other members of staff across the sector.

“What is less widely considered is that if you don’t have enough staff to make a job sustainable, it can create a working environment where UK nationals don’t feel they are able to work,” he warned. 

“If you don’t have enough staff, the job becomes undoable for everyone and it results in even more people leaving a sector that is already under significant strain.” 

Figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last week revealed the number of EU migrant workers in the UK has shown its sharpest annual decline since records began in 1997. The number of EU-born workers fell 4.5 per cent during July to September 2018, compared to the same period in 2017. 

Addressing yesterday’s conference, Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, said business leaders had “major differences” with the government on immigration, and warned that ‘pulling up the drawbridge’ would be very damaging to businesses. 

“A false choice between high- and low-skilled workers would deny businesses, from housebuilders to healthcare providers, the vital skills they need to succeed,” she said. 

“The best way to build public confidence is through a migration system based on contribution, not numbers.”

The 585-page draft Brexit withdrawal agreement is due to be signed off at an EU summit over the coming weekend, but criticism of the document has been widespread and reports suggest cabinet members will try to force revisions before it is signed off. It then faces a parliamentary vote which reports suggest the government may struggle to win. 

“Future prosperity depends on getting the Brexit deal right. The overwhelming message from business is to make progress, don’t go backwards,” Fairbairn warned. 

“We need frictionless trade, ambitious access for our world-beating services and a transition period which draws us back from the cliff edge. Anything less than that and jobs and investment could suffer.”