Ten days ago this tweet caught my eye:
More @BritainThinks: public don't agree NHS will suffer without immigrants. It's a chance for British nurses! (This shocked me)
— Antonia Bance (@antoniabance) March 9, 2017
(the tweet is part of a series from an event – see the rest here)
Then yesterday we have the news in a Guardian article that record numbers of nurses are quitting the NHS, and fewer new ones are being recruited, because of Brexit – in that they fear for their futures in the UK. So could those places be filled by British nurses? Well, no, because the UK is actually training fewer nurses than before. From the same article:
The NHS is already under pressure because of a long-term failure to hire enough people. Applications for nursing courses plummeted by almost a quarter in a year after the government axed bursaries for trainees in 2016. Numbers fell by 9,990 to 33,810 in 12 months, according to figures released in February by the university admissions service Ucas.
If the UK were to train more nurses and, one presumes, pay them better to make the nursing profession more appealing to people, then the situation may be able to be addressed. But making a change like that will take years – new training facilities put in place, the years it takes for new nurses to be trained.
I do wonder how all this NHS dependent on EU citizens thing plays in the UK population. The rhetoric about the NHS in the UK, especially on the left, has always been that the UK ought to be proud of it, that it is a pillar of the British state that cares for its people. That 57000 non-UK EU nationals work for it and help make it run rather jars against the sort of national pride in the NHS rhetoric so often deployed in the media – could that explain the sentiment expressed in the original tweet?
Other sectors beyond healthcare are facing the same situation. 95% of vets recruited in the meat slaughter industry are from overseas, most of them from the EU, as the BVA explains here. Any British trained vet can get a job, but there are not enough of them. The UK cannot suddenly call on a ready pool of British vets, just as it cannot call on a pool of nurses.
The construction sector – in London at least – is facing similar headaches (according to today’s Times), as is agriculture (a subject covered in today’s Countryfile on BBC One) [UPDATE: it caused some strong reactions on social media – see this). Even the road haulage sector has headaches. In each of these cases the solutions – were the UK to want to find them – would slightly different to the nurses and vets issues, because these are mainly low skilled positions. With higher levels of pay it might be possible to make up the labour shortfall in these sectors, although whether there are even enough British unskilled workers to do all these jobs largely done by EU citizens is questionable.
It strikes me that there is an enormous chasm between the labour market reality, and the perception of the reality, in the post-referendum debate about EU Freedom of Movement and migration to the UK. If the needs of the NHS, slaughterhouses, building sites, farms and haulage firms are taken into account, something close to freedom current levels of migration will end up being retained. However the rhetoric of control and limits – stoked my Theresa May – implies the opposite, and there is a public perception that such limits have to be delivered. How is that chasm going to be bridged?