In the bizarre post-Brexit chaos, there are now increasing voices arguing that in order to curb immigration from the EU we should be willing to give up access to the Single Market.
We should be clear that both of these developments would be disastrous for the City, negative for the economy as a whole and a catastrophe for the NHS. The respected IPPR think tank says the NHS “would collapse” without its EU workers.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s suggestion that all the NHS’s doctors can be home-trained before the end of the next parliament is both extreme and incredible. Doctors can take up to seven or eight years to train. Specialisms can be the product of as much as 10 or even 14 years’ training. Barely a single one of Hunt’s new home-grown crop will actually be a qualified doctor by the end of the next parliament.
The Tory government, which has brought us six years of austerity only to admit that it is hopeless at reducing the deficit, is clearly not economically expert. But Hunt’s foreigner-free doctor recruitment policy fails at simple maths.
Hunt’s plan is to increase the number of UK-trained doctors by 1,500 per year. There are 100,000 overseas doctors in the UK, according to the General Medical Council. Simply replacing these would take 66 years. Over that timescale, much of the initial cohort would themselves be retired. This takes no account of the doctors who leave every year or the growing demand for professionals as the population grows and ages. The “self-sufficiency” would never occur.
The NHS already has a shortage of workers, including more than 6,000 doctors’ posts. It is part of the Brexit delusion to believe that these workers could readily be replaced from the domestic workforce. In fact, the EU country providing the most doctors to the NHS is Ireland. But this is far behind the biggest contributors, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Nigeria. It would be a surprise if Hunt meant that his policy would lead to a sharp increase in recruitment from these countries.
Yet the government’s plan for the ridiculously low numbers of new UK-trained recruits is that they must be compelled to work in the NHS for a minimum of four years. Hunt uses the comparison of the army. But army recruits are not saddled with debt to pay for their own training. This is a classic example of how all measures against foreign workers also restrict the rights and freedoms of workers here.
For the NHS to survive, we will not only need to offer guarantees to EU nationals already working here, but we will need to replenish them from the EU and elsewhere in future years. This is what freedom of movement in the EU allows, and what all attempts to curb it will destroy.
The NHS is not an isolated example or a special case. Already, we have had lobbying for free movement of workers by farmers, by car makers, by the City, by the construction industry, the universities, the scientists, the arts. More will follow. There is barely a sector of the economy which would not be damaged by curbing free movement of workers, which after all is a worker’s right, not exclusively or primarily an employer’s one.
Nigel Farage used to argue that he didn’t care whether leaving the EU would make us poorer, because he was still in favour of it on “cultural” grounds, that is anti-foreigner grounds. This Tory government is going down the same road. Their slogan should be: Leave the EU. Get poorer. Get sicker!
Labour is the party of the NHS, of workers’ rights and of protecting living standards. This Tory plan will damage all three and we will vigorously oppose it.