Leaving the EU: Health and Social Care — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:59 am on 19th March 2019.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 9:59 am, 19th March 2019

I thank my hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara, whose constituency is almost as picturesque and beautiful as mine, for securing this debate.

The debate is extremely important, since we have had no evaluation, independent or otherwise, of the effect of leaving the EU on the UK’s health and social care sector. I heard what John Howell said, but the Royal College of Nursing pointed out that the Brexit process is presenting new and exacerbating existing

“challenges around workforce sustainability, recruitment and retention of the existing and future nursing community”.

That should be of concern to everyone in Parliament.

We know the health and social care sector already faces a recruitment and retention crisis, for a whole host of reasons, including poor pay, the lack of recognition of the important work and professional commitment of those in the sector, and the statutory and voluntary demands of a growing elderly population. We face similar challenges across the UK, but social care in England faces a critical situation, for a variety of reasons. I am therefore extremely disappointed that so few Labour and Conservative Members are present.

The context of this debate is important. The sector relies heavily on workers from the EU, but we have no plan for filling the gaps that are increasingly being left. I have been told in previous debates that no EU workers will necessarily be forced to leave the UK post Brexit if they have been here for a certain number of years and fulfilled certain conditions, but the Minister must recognise that the environment that has been created around Brexit means we will lose many of those workers, in the health and social care sector and beyond. Why should any worker stay in the UK when they can take their skillset and professionalism anywhere they wish in the EU, where they will be welcomed and appreciated? Sadly, that is something they do not feel very often in the current UK environment.

It is deeply concerning, because it is expected that by 2035 we will need 650,000 social care workers in the UK simply to keep pace with rising demand. That is in a sector that, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute, already faces a range of challenges. The challenges in England are well documented, but we in Scotland are not immune to them. The Care Inspectorate and the Scottish Social Services Council found that more than 38% of social care services report unfilled staff vacancies, even before Brexit has happened. Around 104,000 of the current health and social care workforce are EU nationals, and at any one time around 110,000 positions are unfilled. In addition, about 320,000 of those working in the sector are 55 or older, so they will retire in the next 10 years or so.

The situation is alarming, and the strains are affecting not just our social care sector but our entire national health service across the UK—our nurses, our doctors and our GPs. The situation could throw rural care in particular into real danger. For example, one in five of our rural GPs in Scotland is an EU national, and it seems likely that EU-qualified clinicians are already located disproportionately in hard-to-fill specialisms and shortage occupations such as radiology.

Medical isotopes are used to diagnose and treat cancers. In 2016-17, the NHS used radioactive materials in nearly 600,000 procedures. Those medical radioisotopes have a short half-life and cannot be stockpiled, even if one was minded to do so. The Royal College of Radiologists is preparing for difficulties in accessing radioactive materials by planning a lighter workload for the week following the date of our exit from the EU. However, that will hit patients who need and deserve treatment of their cancer. I mentioned that very point in a debate in the main Chamber two years ago and I was jeered and accused of scaremongering, despite the fact that I was simply quoting the Royal College of Radiologists. The jeering has stopped, but the challenges posed by Brexit are in no way receding; they are growing.

I do not have the relaxed attitude to these challenges that the hon. Member for Henley seems to have. Throw into the mix the UK Government’s inability to guarantee uninterrupted supplies of medicine, and the future looks grim indeed. That inevitably will affect our ability to look after the vulnerable and ill people in our communities in every constituency—the people who need care and the people who need support. Of course, that is in the wider context of NHS services across the UK being open to predatory procurement, which the UK Government refuse to guarantee will not happen.

No evaluation has been undertaken of the effect of leaving the EU on the UK’s health and social care sector. That is an absolute disgrace. The Government of the day have a duty to serve and protect those they seek to represent. Too little attention has been given to the calamitous situation that awaits us unless this Brexit madness, which has been characterised by confusion, incompetence, a complete breakdown of Cabinet responsibility and not a little arrogance, ends. Those who will bear the brunt and pay the price have not featured prominently enough in this unfolding tragedy. Today, their voices and concerns are being set out clearly. The Government should—they simply must—listen and do all they can to protect our health and social care sector, on which we all at some point will rely.