A message from Jeremy Hunt urging European NHS doctors and nurses not to quit Britain over Brexit has been branded “too little, too late”.
The health secretary tweeted his happiness that the Brexit divorce agreement, finalised Friday morning, said that EU nationals already in the UK can remain, ending nearly 18 months of uncertainty over the future of more than three million people.
He told “our brilliant EU doctors and nurses” that the NHS valued their “life-saving work”.
But Labour MP Luciana Berger noted the uncertainty around what Brexit means for EU nationals had already hit the NHS, with doctors and nurses quitting and applications by EU nationals to be nurses in Britain falling massively.
“Jeremy Hunt’s warm words are too little, too late,” said Berger, a former shadow health minister, who backs the Open Britain campaign to resist a hard Brexit.
“Thousands of NHS staff are already making plans to leave because of Brexit and the number of European nurses applying to work in the NHS is down by 96% since the referendum.”
In September, NHS Digital revealed nearly 10,000 doctors, nurses and support staff from the EU had quit in the previous year, an increase of 22%, as the NHS struggles to fill vacancies.
Last month, a survey showed nearly a fifth of European doctors had made concrete plans to leave the country.
One doctor who was surveyed said he moved back to Italy because he feared qualifications he earned in Britain would not be recognised in the EU.
Berger added the government could have addressed the issue earlier “without any fuss” by unilaterally guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights.
Joan Pons Laplana, a 42-year-old Spanish national who has worked as an NHS nurse for 17 years, told HuffPost UK Hunt’s tweet was “a bit patronising” and the deal does not address other rights, besides the right to stay, that could be lost.
His parents, who are in their 70s and still in Spain, might struggle to be granted visas to enter post-Brexit Britain, he said. Laplana added he still had no idea what would happen if he went to Spain for a long period and then tried to return to the UK to visit his three British-born children.
He said the 15-page agreement revealed on Friday was not set in stone.
Laplana told HuffPost: “Nothing is exactly in writing. The devil will be in the detail… I don’t know what my future is going to look like… I feel dizzy from the number of U-turns the Conservative Party has made in the last 18 months.”
He added he was settled and would not leave but added: “The majority of people who have been here for less than five years are going to go in the next six to 12 months.”
The number of EU nurses leaving the NHS has risen by 67% since Brexit in a trend the National Midwifery Council called “worrying”. In the year to September, 4,067 left, compared with 2,435 in the previous 12 months.
A Royal College of Nursing spokesman told HuffPost: “While we wait to examine the finer print of today’s agreement, it is clear it needs to go a long way to make up for the damage caused in the first year after the referendum.
“By refusing to provide the necessary assurances for so long, Theresa May effectively turned off the tap on the supply of international nurses to the NHS.
“When we are failing to train enough nurses in Britain, overseas recruitment has never been more important. Patient safety is being jeopardised by this self-made nursing shortage”.
The British Medical Association welcomed the progress in the Brexit talks but said more work had to be done to ensure a stricter immigration regime did not damage the NHS.
BMA treasurer Dr Andrew Dearden, said: “These assurances are vital to provide EU citizens with confidence about their future in the UK and protect the delivery of cross-border health care.
“Progress now needs to be made on a flexible immigration system that ensures the NHS and medical research in the UK can attract and retain the workforce needed to deliver safe care and maintain world class innovation and research.”