Hospitals spending thousands to secure settled status for EU employees

NHS trusts confirm they are covering post-Brexit visa costs to avert talent shortages

NHS hospitals are paying six-figures sums to secure the rights of critical employees to continue working in the UK after Brexit, it has been confirmed, in a move which illustrates the depth of concern in the health service about availability of talent once the UK leaves the European Union.

The Evening Standard reported that three NHS trusts in London – University College London Hospitals (UCLH), St George’s Hospitals and Guy’s and St Thomas’s – were offering to reimburse fees for EU employees to meet post-Brexit requirements.

The newspaper said Professor Marcel Levi, chief executive of UCLH, had written to almost 1,300 staff offering to cover the cost of applying for ‘settled status’, which will replace permanent residence status at the end of the Brexit implementation period in December 2020.

It was estimated this would cost UCLH, which operates nine hospitals in central London, more than £100,000.

King’s College NHS Foundation Trust, which has five sites across London and Kent, later confirmed to People Management in a tweet that it would make a similar offer to employees: “Our EU colleagues are an essential part of #TeamKings and make a substantial contribution to our patients. We'll be covering the costs of their applications for settled status under the Home Office Settlement Scheme.”

St George’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust confirmed it was covering the settled status costs of its EU employees, and a spokesperson for the trust said it had 1,200 EU staff out of 9,000 employees who would be eligible. 

The move to cover settled status fees on such a significant scale will raise eyebrows in some quarters, but trusts may feel it represents a sensible investment given the potential costs of recruiting and training replacements under an as-yet undefined post-Brexit visa regime. The Royal College of Physicians recently warned that the £150m annual cost to the NHS of recruiting overseas staff could more than triple if freedom of movement ends as a result of Brexit.

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, told People Management the decision to reimburse or cover settled status fees is a decision for employers at a local level. 

“NHS Employers is working with the Home Office to ensure there are opportunities for employers to hear about the scheme and understand what is needed from them to communicate with their staff,” Mortimer said. “There are many ways employers have tried to ensure their EU colleagues feel valued through the uncertainty of the last two years, and this is another example.”

Retention of EU staff has also been thrown into sharp focus by new research suggesting the NHS could be short of 51,000 nurses by the end of the Brexit transition period.

The Cavendish Coalition, which is examining the staffing of the health and social care system after Brexit, forecast a shortage of approximately 5,000 to 10,000 nurses by 2021. This is on top of existing vacancies, which currently stand at 41,722. 

The Coalition warned heath and social care services relied heavily on staff from the European Economic Area (EEA). They estimated more than 5 per cent of the regulated nursing profession, 5 per cent of allied health professionals, 9 per cent of doctors and 16 per cent of dentists came from inside the bloc. 

Dr Heather Rolfe, associate research director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and co-author of the report, said the findings highlighted migrants “are an essential part of the health and social care workforce, often found in shortage specialities and localities where it is hard to recruit. 

“Measures designed to increase recruitment from within the UK like ‘return to work’ schemes have potential to help fill gaps left by falling migration to the UK,” Rolfe added. “However, they will take some time to take effect and are very unlikely to produce sufficient numbers to make up for a shrinking EU workforce.”

The report recommended the UK “urgently review” workforce planning approaches across the health and social care sector, and said international recruitment should form part of a costed workforce strategy. The authors called on the Home Office to guarantee the settled status programme for EU nationals be honoured in the event of a no-deal Brexit. 

Commenting on the report, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told People Management: “We greatly value the contribution of nurses to the NHS and we hope those from the EU will take up the early opportunity to secure their future in the UK.

“There are 11,900 more nurses on our wards since 2010, 52,000 nurses currently in NHS training and we have made more funding available to increase university training places.”

“Later this year, we will also set out plans to reform the adult social care system to make it sustainable for the future, including how better to attract and retain staff.”

The spokesperson added one reason for the decrease in EU nurses and midwives could be the introduction of more rigorous language testing by the Nursing and Midwifery Council, adding it would be “inaccurate to attribute the drop in numbers solely to the outcome of the referendum”.