Jeremy Hunt has admitted Brexit has led to staff shortages in the NHS.
The health secretary also said he was “struggling” to hit his target of recruiting an extra 5,000 GPs in England by 2020.
In an interview with The Guardian, 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.
“It’s inevitable that, faced with the headlines that Brexit has created over the last few years, it’s going to be challenging in this period of negotiations [for the NHS to recruit EU nationals]. People read the headlines and inevitably they worry.”
Between April 207 and March 2018 only 805 EU nurses and midwives joined the NHS compared with 6,382 the year before - a drop of 87%.
And over the same period 3,000 EU nurses left the health service - an increase of 29%.
The health secretary also said it was taking a “bit longer” than he had predicted to increase the number of GPs.
“We do need 5,000 more GPs and we are struggling to deliver that pledge,” he said.
“But I’m absolutely determined to do so because GPs are working incredibly hard; too hard. I got quite widely ridiculed when I made the pledge in 2015. I wanted to nail my colours to the mast of getting more GPs into the system. But it has been harder than we thought.”
On June 4, Hunt became the longest serving health secretary since the creation of the NHS, having been in post for five years and 274 days.
Hunt campaigned for ‘Remain’, but has since said he would vote for Brexit if there was another referendum.
Labour MP Gareth Thomas, a leading supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, told HuffPost UK it was “utterly appalling” that Hunt would “so casually admit that Brexit has led to staff shortages in the NHS, while at the same time supporting the prime minister’s disastrous hard Brexit plans”.
“We were promised £350 million a week more for our health service, but that money has never appeared. Instead, Brexit is breaking the NHS, with increasing numbers of EU staff leaving and fewer coming to work here in the first place leading to huge shortfalls in the number of doctors and nurses in our overstretched NHS,” he said.
“With the negotiations in complete chaos, Brexit increasingly poses a clear and present danger to the NHS. With more and more medical professionals and groups like the Royal College of Nursing coming out in support, and with parliament paralysed by party politics, we need a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal.”