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Staff shortages have always been an ongoing issue for the NHS and the recent triggering of Brexit, the leaving of the UK from the European Union, has only made the problem more critical.

A great deal of concern is centered on the fears that the UK Government is making the crisis worse by refusing to guarantee the right to work in the UK of European citizens, especially those already here.

Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will force European healthcare workers to either stay away or leave the country, two options that will have catastrophic consequences on the already overstretched NHS’s ability to operate.

The reliance on foreign workers in the healthcare sector has become a key requirement in recent years. The NHS alone relies heavily on EU nationals with just over 60,000 workers, including 10,513 doctors, 22,082 nurses and 23,383 in therapeutic, technical and support services*. When you add these figures with the private healthcare sector the need to fulfill these roles without using EU workers becomes a very frightening proposition indeed.

The figures are already extremely alarming with about 6,400 EU nationals quitting the NHS in 2016, up from 5,135 in 2014. Almost 2,700 EU nurses quit their jobs in 2016, compared to 1,600 in 2014, a dramatic increase of 68 percent**. This is compounded by the fact that, according to the country’s main association of nurses, the NHS is already facing 24,000 nursing vacancies.

The announcement of the upcoming June General Election is surely only going to lead to weeks of more uncertainty. Whatever the outcome with the incumbent Conservative government undoubtedly campaigning with a strong post-Brexit stance the levels of fear and uncertainty within the healthcare sector can only grow.

One thing is certain, whatever result we have post election day we need to be very cautious as to how to proceed over the next few months.

As Janet Davies, Chief Executive and General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing said a few weeks ago, “The Government risks turning off the supply of qualified nurses from around the world at the very moment the health service is in a staffing crisis like never before. As she pulls the trigger to begin negotiations, Theresa May must tell EU nurses and other occupations that they are needed and welcome in the NHS. It would not survive without their contribution”. “Sadly, it is no surprise that EU staff are leaving – they have been offered no security or reassurance that they will be able to keep their jobs. Few are able to live with such uncertainty,” she continued.

The NHS is already under massive pressure because of a long-term failure to hire enough people. The British Red Cross warned in January that the NHS is facing a “humanitarian crisis” as hospitals and ambulance services struggle to keep up with rising demand.

One thing is for certain, as the demand for skills within the NHS and healthcare sector increases, the demand for external support agencies to assist with the resourcing and retention of staff in all areas is inevitable. The NHS already relies on the support of external agencies to assist in staff recruitment and this is bound to increase over the short term.

We will have to wait and see how things develop over the next few months. One thing is for certain, regardless of who is in government after the election if a decisive strategy for reassuring EU workers within the NHS is not implemented the consequences could be catastrophic.