Free movement of labour in EU of great benefit to our health service
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AS we head towards 2017, there is still much uncertainty about what Brexit will ultimately look like for Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole. One of the areas where that uncertainty is most keenly felt is in our National Health Service.
Scotland has a long tradition of welcoming professionals from overseas to work in our health and social care services. Free movement of labour throughout the 31 countries of the European Economic Area (EEA) has been hugely important in ensuring we have the skilled workforce we need.
AsamemberoftheEU,free movement has meant we are not required to hold information on the numbers of citizens from the EEA who work in our health service. However, we have estimated that non-UK EU citizens account for approximately five per cent of the NHS workforce in Scotland. The General Medical Council (GMC) registered just over 1,100 EEA-qualified doctors in Scotland as of December 2014, from a total of approximately 20,000.
In 2015, 118 out of 3,113 students starting a pre-registration course in nursing and midwifery came from these countries. Around 1,400 of the non-UK EU citizens licensed to practise by the GMC are registered in Scotland – approximately 6.8 per cent of our doctors.
These numbers are not inconsiderable, and they demonstrate the benefits free movement of labour has brought our health service. We value everyone who works in our health and social care services regardless of nationality, and we will do everything we can to make sure they can continue to live and work in Scotland without detriment.
It is unacceptable that the UK Government has refused to give any assurances to these workers about whether they will be able to remain here after the UK leaves the EU. Many see Scotland as their home.
We will continue to press the UK Government for confirmation that those workers from other parts of the EEA will be allowed to remain. The EU has also done much to protect and improve workers’ employment rights. Examples include the European Working Time Directive, health and safety and equality and diversity legislation, as well as maternity and parental rights.
These have helped us deliver improved working conditions for staff as well as protect patient and public safety and these are important protections to retain. Last week the First Minister published Scotland’s Place in Europe setting out the Scottish Government’s plans for keeping Scotland in the European single market and, crucially, retaining free movement of labour.
We know the huge challenges our health and social care services will face as demand for services grows. To enable us to meet that challenge, we need to have the workforce available to deliver these services.
We have greatly expanded the NHS workforce in recent years, and continue to do so. However, our ageing population and the everincreasing demand for skilled workers mean that it’s vital that we can still recruit and retain staff from throughout Europe as easily as possible. Any move to limit migration has the potential to cause serious harm to our economy and health service. The uncertainty surrounding the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is already impacting on recruitment with anecdotal reports that it is making our health and social care services less attractive to potential recruits.
We also need to ensure we can attract and train our future workforce and that means attracting students to take up training places. Scotland’s medical and dental schools are already concerned about the impact of the uncertainty on their ability to attract the best students to their courses. There is a risk we will lose talented individuals if we cannot offer certainty on future rights to remain here to train, work and build a career.
Once a young nurse or doctor has decided to settle in another country, they could be lost to Scotland forever.
I want to ensure we can continue our proud history of welcoming health professionals from overseas. That means guaranteeing we can continue to benefit from freedom of movement throughout the EEA by remaining as a member of the single market. Further uncertainty can only be to detriment of our health service and the patients that rely on it. Shona Robison is Health Secretary in the Scottish Government.