Brexit compounds doctor shortage in UK, says study

Estimated shortfall of 4,000 specialists caused by fewer European medics choosing to work in the NHS

Doctor vacancies in the NHS have been exacerbated by Brexit.
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More than four in 10 vacancies in the UK's NHS have been caused by a drop in the number of European medics choosing to work in the UK post-Brexit, research suggests.

According to analysis from the Nuffield Trust think tank, the pre-Brexit number of doctors working in the NHS in 2021 was forecast to be 41,321.

However, the research, which was conducted on behalf of The Guardian, shows the actual figure for 2021 to be 37,035 – more than 4,000 less than the pre-EU referendum projections.

Figures from the NHS show there are 10,582 FTE medical vacancies across England alone.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics released last week showed net migration to the UK has risen to a record half a million, driven by “unprecedented world events”, including the war in Ukraine and the end of coronavirus lockdown restrictions. The departure of EU citizens post-Brexit continued. The number of EU nationals in the UK was down 51,000, compared with a decrease of 63,000 the year before.

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People hired from abroad — about 209 different foreign nationalities — make up one-third of doctors and a quarter of nurses in the NHS workforce in England.

The Nuffield Trust said that while the effect is “subtle”, it is “inarguable” that registration of doctors from the EU and the four European Free Trade Association members (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein) “was slower in the years after 2016 than the years before”.

When divided into specialties, the analysis shows the NHS has 394 fewer EU/EFTA anaesthetists, 369 fewer cardiothoracic surgeons, 288 fewer paediatricians and 165 fewer psychiatrists than if pre-Brexit trends had been maintained.

Nuffield Trust researcher Martha McCarey, the lead author of the analysis, told The Guardian the drop-off in EU-trained medics seeking to work in the UK could be a result of extra bureaucracy and higher costs following Brexit.

She said: “Since the referendum campaign, greater costs, more paperwork and uncertainty over visas because of Brexit have been among the biggest barriers to recruiting and keeping EU and EFTA doctors.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said it rejected the Nuffield Trust’s findings.

A spokesperson for the DHSC said: “This analysis is inaccurate and we don’t recognise or agree with its key conclusions.

“We are making significant progress in training and recruiting a record number of nurses, doctors and healthcare professionals.

“There are over 9,000 more nurses working in the NHS and there are over 26,000 more hospital doctors now than in 2016.”

Updated: November 28, 2022, 9:26 AM
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