Employing overseas health professionals after Brexit could cost the NHS £490 million a year – the same as paying more than 8,500 nurses.
Overseas nurses and doctors are crucial as the NHS struggles to fill hundreds of thousands of vacancies but visa costs post-Brexit could “kill” the already weakened NHS, campaigners and politicians warned.
In a damning blog, Dr Andrew Goddard, the incoming president of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) raised concerns about the potential rising costs of employing overseas staff with the March 2019 deadline looming and that there is still no resolution on how a future immigration system will work.
The potential new annual bill of £490 million is based on the most recent figures showing that 26,335 overseas health workers joined the NHS.
The provider sector is reporting a record 100,000 vacant posts and 45% of advertised consultant posts are going unfilled, which Goddard said showed the vital role overseas staff play.
The calculation takes into account current visa and associated costs and the 2017 Conservative manifesto pledge for further increases, and £150 million for the 12,303 EU nationals recruited and their dependents that are currently exempt from fees.
In current spending terms the almost half a billion pounds could put 3,000 students through medical school or fund half the NHS’s estimated high-risk backlog maintenance bill. It is more than a tripling of today’s annual costs.
In June, the then health and social care secretary, Jeremy Hunt, admitted Brexit has led to staff shortages in the NHS.
Hunt said the dramatic fall in the number of nurses from the EU working in the health service had been caused by the referendum result.
“[That] tells us sadly what we knew at the start of this process, which is: this is a time of great uncertainty and that’s going to have an impact on much-valued EU staff who work in the NHS,” he said.
In his blog, Goddard said the record numbers of vacancies meant the health service is “heavily reliant” on overseas doctors, nurses and other health professionals.
He said: “They address profound gaps in the UK health workforce and everything should be done now to champion, recruit and retain them in the most affordable way.
“It is increasingly worrying that we are no closer to knowing how the immigration system will work after Brexit.
“The potential reputational and financial implications to the NHS are huge with research showing that 45% of EU doctors are already considering leaving the UK because of Brexit uncertainties.”
He said that if visa and other costs are to rise the RCP will seek urgent assurances from government that they will be funded centrally rather than by frontline NHS trusts.
He added that they are also encouraging the continuing exemption of doctors and nurses from any visa caps.
As the NHS prepares for life post-Brexit, Goddard said that the worry of extra costs or valuable overseas staff feeling alienated by the continuing lack of information was unnecessary, adding that the money would be much better spent on high-quality patient care and delivering the urgent integration agenda.
The RCP is calling for a timetable for the publication of the proposed new immigration system, for health workers to be removed from any planned visa caps and for bureaucracy to be minimised.
It also wants the government to give assurance that any new Brexit-related costs for the NHS and social care will be funded centrally.
“Lives are depending on it,” he added.
Commenting on the statement, Martin McKee, co-founder of Healthier IN the EU, said: “The vast majority of doctors think that Brexit will be harmful to the NHS – and the Royal College of Physicians have today confirmed that costs for recruiting staff post-Brexit will be astronomical.
“£490 million pounds could pay over 8,500 nurses for a year. That’s at least 30 for every hospital in the country. In a time when we need to secure the best healthcare professionals for our NHS, Brexit is a waste of money.
“The UK loves our healthcare system, and the only way to save it is to back a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal.”
Another co-founder of the campaign group, Dr Mike Galsworthy, added: “Brexit is killing our weakened NHS and 83% of doctors say Brexit is bad news. It really is time to stop this failed experiment and support our NHS instead.”
Labour MP Paul Williams, a leading supporter of the People’s Vote campaign and an NHS GP, said: “Whatever sort of Brexit the Government deliver – the one that Theresa May wants, or the one that Jacob Rees Mogg seeks – it seems certain to damage an NHS that the Royal College of Physicians says is already at ‘breaking point’ because of staff shortages.
He added that nobody voted to to threaten the NHS in this way, and said that is why “so many who work in the NHS are now demanding a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal”.
HuffPost UK has approached the Department for Health and Social Care for a comment.