Brexit has compounded a shortage of doctors in Britain, with an estimated shortfall of 4,000 in major specialist areas from EU countries, a study published on Sunday said.
The crisis-hit National Health Service has struggled after years of under-financing, with record waiting lists for some hospital care because of the Covid pandemic, but also a lack of doctors and nurses.
The Nuffield Trust, an independent health think tank, focused on four fields of medicine — anaesthesia, paediatrics, cardio-thoracic surgery and psychiatry — where the UK particularly relied on European doctors before it left the EU.
It found that in the four areas, where recruitment was already challenging, "the increase in EU and EFTA [European Free Trade Association] staff slowed down, falling below the projected increase".
If the trend seen before Brexit continued, there should have been more than 41,000 doctors from the EU or EFTA [Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein] registered in 2021, or at least 4,000 more than the figures showed.
"The campaign and result of the EU referendum is the obvious reason for a change in trend around 2015 and 2016," said the study, which was commissioned by The Guardian newspaper.
It highlighted initial uncertainty over new rules for the movement of people, followed by tighter visa rules and "deteriorating work conditions" in the health system.
"The findings suggest that stagnation in the number of EU doctors in these specialities has exacerbated existing shortages in areas where the NHS has not been able to find enough qualified staff elsewhere," it said.
The Royal College of Nursing last week announced that its members would next month hold their first strike action in the union's 106-year history in England and Wales, because of pay, conditions and chronic staff shortages.