The uncertainty over the future of EU staff working in the NHS must be eliminated, the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator has said.
Speaking at the plenary session of the European Committee of the Regions, Michel Barnier said the EU and the UK should agree to ensure the rights of UK citizens living abroad and EU staff working in the NHS are protected.
It comes after significant lobbying from the BMA in Europe, and ahead of prime minister Theresa May’s plan to trigger Article 50 next Wednesday, 29 March.
Mr Barnier said: ‘This uncertainty is first and foremost that of the four and a half million citizens.’
The chief negotiator specifically references ‘British pensioners who are resident in Spain and who benefit from healthcare under the same conditions as Spanish pensioners’ and the ‘nurses and doctors who contribute to the quality of healthcare in the United Kingdom’.
Mr Barnier added: ‘It will take time, several months certainly. We must do serious legal work on this with the United Kingdom. But we can and we should agree – as soon as possible – on the principles of continuity, reciprocity and non-discrimination so as not to leave these citizens in a situation of uncertainty.’
Mr Barnier also suggested the future of EU-funded projects and healthcare work like the Horizon 2020 programme should be considered quickly.
Two fifths of EU doctors consider leaving the UK
Last month, EU doctors working in the NHS gave stark warnings about the future in a BMA study on the impact of the UK’s Brexit vote.
Taken by 1,193 respondents, the survey sought to shed further light on the experiences and perspectives of the European doctors who collectively make up almost seven per cent of doctors in the NHS.
With around 135,000 EU nationals working in an NHS and social care system wracked by underfunding and staffing shortages, many of the findings will not make for comforting reading.
When asked whether they were considering leaving the UK as a result of last year’s referendum result, 42 per cent of those surveyed conceded that they were, while 23 per cent said they were unsure.
On a scale of one to 10, European doctors said they feel significantly less committed to working in the UK in light of the EU referendum result. From an average of nine out of 10, commitment dropped to six out of 10.
Separately, analysis by the Resolution Foundation this week indicates the drop in EU nationals working in the UK – of 50,000 in the last three months of 2016 – has been driven by skilled graduates.
Uncertainty could destabilise the NHS
Prior to its survey, the BMA had called for the Government to prioritise health in a post-Brexit UK – to take account of how much the NHS relies on overseas doctors to continue to provide a safe level of care, and of the contribution of EU citizens working in medical research – and to do more to support those already here.
In its ongoing UK lobbying, the BMA’s recommendations include granting permanent residence to all existing NHS staff from the EEA, and for future immigration policy to remain flexible enough to allow workforce gaps to be filled by doctors from overseas with the skills needed.
Without it, BMA council chair Mark Porter warns that the uncertainty and anxiety being imposed on EEA medical staff owing to Brexit threatens to destabilise the entire NHS.
He said: ‘Thousands of overseas and EEA doctors work in the NHS, with many more in public health, academic medicine and medical research. While doctors work to provide the best possible care for patients, many from the EEA are left feeling unwelcome and uncertain about whether they and their families will have the right to live and work in the UK after Brexit.
‘These are the people who staff our hospitals and GP surgeries, look after vulnerable patients in the community, and conduct vital medical research to help save lives. Many have dedicated years of service to healthcare in the UK, so it’s extremely concerning that so many are considering leaving.
‘At a time when the NHS is close to breaking point and facing crippling staff shortages, this would be a disaster for our health service and threaten the delivery of high-quality patient care. But this isn’t just about numbers; having a variety of skilled professionals enhances the experience and expertise in the health system, which is beneficial to patient care.’
Read more: Brexit, and what it means for the medical profession
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