Most European doctors considering leaving UK due to Brexit, GMC reveals

Exclusive: General Medical Council warns that the departure of so many trained doctors 'would have a serious impact on patient care'

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The majority of European doctors working in the UK are considering leaving the country because of Brexit, a survey by the General Medical Council (GMC) has found. Thousands could leave in the next two years, plunging the NHS into a fresh staffing crisis.

The doctors' disciplinary body surveyed 2,115 doctors from the European Economic Area (EEA), comprising the EU nations plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, and found that 1,171 - 55 per cent - were thinking of leaving the UK, with the Brexit vote "a factor in their considerations".

With EU or EEA nationals accounting for about 10,200 – or roughly nine per cent – of NHS doctors, according to NHS Digital statistics, if over half of them did leave the UK, it could have a huge impact on a health service which is already suffering staff shortages in some areas.

Of the 1,171 doctors who were thinking of leaving, 596 (45 per cent) said they were considering a departure in the next two years, and 312 (24 per cent), were toying with the idea of leaving in the next three to five years. 

Over 1,000 of the EU and EEA doctors added comments telling the GMC how they felt about Brexit and the impact on their practice.  The GMC said two common themes emerged: the emotional impact of Brexit - with many doctors saying they felt unwanted and demoralised - and uncertainty about their future residence status.  Such uncertainty is unlikely to have been helped by Theresa May's ongoing refusal to confirm the rights of EU nationals to stay in the UK after Brexit. 

Charlie Massey, Chief Executive and Registrar of the General Medical Council, said: "EEA doctors make a huge and vital contribution to health services across the UK.  It’s deeply worrying that some are considering leaving the UK in the next few years. If they leave this would have a serious impact on patient care and would place the rest of the UK medical profession under even greater pressure."

The GMC's survey comes at a time of widespread anxiety about the staff shortages that already exist within the NHS. 

Some of the shortages appear to be most severe in areas that voted heavily for Brexit.  In Lincolnshire, containing Boston, the town which recorded the UK’s biggest Leave vote, the United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust has resorted to shutting Grantham Hospital casualty department at nights, “due to the severe shortage in emergency medicine doctors at Lincoln and Boston hospitals.”

In December the trust also announced it was closing neurology services to new patients at Lincoln County Hospital, Boston Pilgrim Hospital and Grantham Hospital due to staffing shortages.

The GMC's survey also comes days after a British Medical Association (BMA) poll found that 42 per cent doctors from the EEA were considering leaving the UK because of the Brexit vote.

In giving their reasons, many complained of an absence of either clarity or support from those tasked with overseeing and implementing Brexit.

A Spanish consultant anaesthetist who had been resident in the UK for 27 years said this sense of uncertainty was heightened when he recently returned from a conference in France and was – for the first time in his life - stopped and questioned by border control about whether he lived in Britain. 

And Hubertus von Blumenthal, a Cambridgeshire-based GP admitted that he was now considering returning to Germany after having lived in the UK for almost 30 years. 

He told the BMA “Patients say to me, ‘Oh you won’t need to leave, you can stay because you’re a doctor. We like you. We didn’t mean you,’ but the reality is that the Government sees EU nationals like me as a bargaining chip in negotiations, with no consideration of what we’ve contributed to the UK.

“For myself and many colleagues this situation is unnerving, and although it’s not something I want to do, I have to consider whether it’s time to move to another country.”

He added: “With the NHS already over-stretched, it worries me that doctors like myself have been left in this situation because without them the health service will struggle to cope.

“You have GP practices in this country where just the loss of a single doctor could result in that practice collapsing. People leaving is going to have an enormous impact on the provision of safe healthcare services in this country.”

BMA council chair Mark Porter said: “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.”

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has also admitted that the NHS would be reliant on EU nationals “in the short term”.

In January he told MPs on the Health Select Committee: “At every stage of this process, I have praised the work of foreign-born doctors… the NHS would fall over without them.”

A Department of Health spokesperson told The Independent: "As the Government has repeatedly made clear, overseas workers form a crucial part of our NHS and we value their contribution immensely.

"We want to see the outstanding work of doctors and nurses who are already trained overseas continue, but at the same time we have been very clear that we want to give more domestic students the chance to be doctors, given the enduring popularity of this as a career.” 

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