The founder and director of NHS Against Brexit has warned that Brexit could exacerbate the NHS’s winter crisis, saying that staffing levels have been falling since the 2016 EU referendum.
“Austerity is breaking our NHS, the winter crisis is coming in hard, and then Brexit - which could be a crash out Brexit - it’s a really nasty combination,” says Dr Mike Galsworthy.
In June, Theresa May pledged that the NHS would get an extra £20 billion a year by 2023, funded by a ‘Brexit dividend’ and tax rises.
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But Dr Galsworthy is sceptical, saying: "We all know the Brexit dividend doesn't exist".
'They can't fix the staffing crisis'
Protesters march in London in support of the NHS. Image: Getty
“The government is trying to throw some money at it to fix it, but the one thing they really can’t fix is the staffing crisis,” he says.
“Because they’ve cut their nursing bursaries and there are less nurses coming through, and because of Brexit, which has chased off a lot of frontline EU staff, it means we’re going into this winter crisis with over 12,000 doctor vacancies, 42,000 nursing vacancies, and nearly 120,000 NHS vacancies overall.
“When you’ve got patient to nurse ratios that are as stretched as they are now, that’s not good news for provision of care.”
Watchdog NHS Improvement released figures in September showing 41,722 open nursing positions and 11,576 medical vacancies.
In Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday (October 24), Jeremy Corbyn called on Mrs May to reintroduce the nursing bursary, which was axed in 2016.
Nursing students no longer receive NHS bursaries, and instead must use student loans.
The Royal College of Nursing says applications to train as a nurse have fallen by a third in the two years since.
'More EU nurses are leaving than coming in'
Above: Our Future, Our Choice, who are affiliated with the People's Vote campaign and NHS Against Brexit's parent organisation Scientists for EU, stage a stockpiling protest outside the Department of Health
Dr Galsworthy said that he and colleagues had noticed a decline in staff from the EU since the referendum.
“From 2013-2016, EU nurses provided pretty much all the growth in our nursing staff as recorded in our Nursing and Midwifery Council Register,” he said.
The register shows the number of EU nursing staff increased by 21,226 between those years. Between March 2017 and March 2018, the overall number of nurses and midwives in the UK decreased by 495, with EU staff falling by 2,909.
“Since March 2017, there’s been a real drop. We’ve got more EU nurses leaving now than are coming in.”
'Hospitals don't have resources to deal with Brexit'
British Medical Association analysis found that in the winter of 2017/18, the NHS had the worst winter crisis on record, with a higher number of waits over four hours and more A&E attendances than previous years.
“Every year we have a winter crisis, but it’s been getting more severe over the past years,” says Dr Galsworthy.
“One, because austerity is really catching up and biting hard. Then because of the lack of investment that we have, and we have these layers on top of Brexit.
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“It’s chasing off the EU staff, there’s less money in the NHS because the fallen pound is making our purchases more expensive, we’re going to be stockpiling medicines because we don’t know what the hell’s going to happen with Brexit…
“Hospitals have to be making plans in terms of how they’re going to be dealing with Brexit and not a lot are doing that, because they don’t have the resources.
“So you’re looking at more chaos, more strain, more emergency measures needed in order to get through the winter - more operations delayed, and more unnecessary complications and deaths.”