At the weekend, all the media attention was focussed on the Conservative’s dog-ate-my-homework pledge to get 50,000 new nurses. While the pledge has been roundly and rightly discredited by the media since the announcement, there is a side to it that has not been explored completely, one that represents the hidden risk of Brexit - how the lack of freedom of movement will undermine our economy and more importantly make our society poorer and less diverse.
Johnson’s fantasy promise of recruiting 12,500 nurses from abroad seems to hide the fact that if the right-wing migration agenda promised by the Tories and supported by the Brexit Party was to go ahead, our NHS and, more in general our economy, would suffer a blow that would take years to recover from. A blow made worse by the fact that the Tories have also scrapped the nurses’ bursaries, undermining the idea of having enough British-trained nurses to help repair the damage.
Right now, it doesn’t make a difference that the Tories have promised to reinstate a similar scheme. They have done long term harm to the NHS, by depleting the service of the necessary resources, impacting staff morale in the process.
Johnson, coming from the party that imposed austerity first and foremost as a political choice, will not be the one able and willing to reverse its course of destruction.
We are extremely reliant on freedom of movement across the European Union to staff our NHS. Five per cent of NHS workers and 10 per cent of social care staff are from the EU. They improve and enrich our health service. We can’t pursue a policy which is not only cruel, but so clearly self-injurious as locking out people who want to work in our NHS when we currently have 100,000 vacancies across the board.
The vote to leave the European Union has already fuelled the crisis in NHS staff shortages, with over 5,000 quitting their job in the last two years. We have also made the UK an unattractive employer for migrants. In 2018/19, fewer than a thousand nurses and midwives from the EEA were added to the register here in the UK - a drop of 91% from 2015/16.
Even with the government scrambling to recruit from outside Europe, we’re still well below our early noughties peak. And it's worth remembering that all of this is before Brexit has even actually happened. Scrapping freedom of movement will unquestionably make these numbers worse.
It’s difficult to imagine a more obvious public good than nursing, and one which is more universally experienced. Whether you have a lifelong illness or if you just cut yourself while cooking, nurses are your first port of call for care and compassion. But if the Tories get their way, they’ll sell off the NHS in chunks and shut the borders to migrants who prop up our public services. Then there’s a dystopian future ahead. Don’t trip up on the way home from the Christmas do next year. It could be a long wait at A&E.
In this election, the Conservatives want to wash their hands of austerity, promising to reinstate maintenance grants for nurses. It’s true that the cuts to bursaries are another reason that nurse numbers are plummeting, and that we must reinvest in our NHS. That’s why the Greens will invest more in nursing than the amount promised by the Tories - which doesn’t go far enough. We desperately need to incentivise and inspire the next generation of student nurses, and this investment will open the door.
But that’s not the only door we need to open. There’s no point in the main parties turning on the taps for our NHS if they shut the doors to people who want to work there. Even Labour aren’t willing to stand up for European migrants. But Greens will always unambiguously and unapologetically stand up for freedom of movement. While the Conservatives have sent nurses to stand in line at food banks, we’ll restore the frontline of our NHS to full health. For those who care for us unconditionally, it’s the very least we can do for them.
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