Over the last year or so, the UK labour market as a whole has seemingly laughed in the face of international trade wars, Brexit, and a global slowdown, remaining extremely tight with a record level of employment. While this is still true in an overarching sense, some sectors have still been struggling to fill vacancies. The healthcare sector is one of them, especially the NHS.Towards the end of last year, UNISON reported that there was a shortage of 106,000 staff. Around 44,000 of these were nursing positions. This isn’t a problem that has been overlooked by ministers, of course. One of the major drives of the last election from all parties was the NHS. There are still significant problems however, as immigration lawyer Anne Morris points out.
Immigrant workers have always been a crucial part of the NHS. Even the current government recognises this simple fact, despite having a clear anti-immigration agenda. With Brexit looking at the end of the year, the question is whether changes in migration laws and systems will help or hinder an increasingly strained health service. Here are some of the more serious potential problems that need to be addressed.
A Hostile Climate
The Brexit vote and subsequent 2019 election results have had the following effect. They sent a clear message that immigration, especially from the EU, is perceived as a serious problem. The facts suggest that the moderately negative impacts of migration are often exaggerated by political opportunists. For example:
- Can the lack of social housing really be attributed to increased immigration, or does it instead stem from a failure to provide more social housing for a growing population in general?
- Can the fact that immigrant workers tend to lower wages for low skilled jobs be blamed on the workers themselves, or the fact that some employers exploit this to increase profits while paying staff less, thus driving wages down?
Even if these facts are taken into account, the real issue now is that the UK is not perceived to be a hostile environment by many potential immigrant workers. Actual policy will probably do little to impact on this, as Anna Morris observes: ‘While the Government makes concessions for the NHS, this only works if people will want to come to the work in the UK, while the government’s stance and fuelling the hostile environment have the effect of reducing the appeal of UK.’
The ‘Brightest and Best’
While only allowing access to migrant workers that are highly skilled might sound like a good idea on the surface, it won’t do much to help the NHS. Let’s look at how the current Australian system works. It heavily favours highly qualified professionals, normally with at least 8 years of experience. Additionally, the more qualifications a migrant worker has, the more points they can accumulate in such a system.
The problem here is that many of the most in-demand roles for the NHS fall outside of this system. Crucial lab workers and care professionals would be completely excluded from working in the UK using such an approach. This, combined with tougher access for nearby EU citizens, and an increasingly competitive global marketplace, could only serve to compound the issue.
While we don’t currently have any clear idea of exactly what aspects of the Australian style system will actually be implemented, there could be room to alleviate this potential stumbling block to some extent. As mentioned, the government has at least already shown its willingness to make a special exception for the NHS in terms of immigration policy, and this could extend to any reforms in the future.
As Anne Morris states, we need to move away from ‘Political wranglings..’, because ‘..the Government has a responsibility to public health to ensure barriers are not put in place that hinders the employment of overseas workers in the NHS.’.