Should we be worried about Brexit?” As a chief executive of west London mental health NHS trust, I make a point of getting out into our diverse and geographically dispersed services as often as I can. Not for the first time, staff are asking about what Brexit means for them, especially, of course, if they come from another EU country.
We need to deal with the practicalities and ramifications of major political issues like the future of our EU staff post-Brexit. It is also important for me to be as open and honest as I possibly can with our staff. Staff who are used to dealing with complex mental disorders are not easily fooled by a glib throwaway line, well-crafted though it may be.
So, yes, we should be worried, I answer. We have lots of staff from the EU and we need to be focusing on retaining as many as possible. We can’t influence the political discussion, but we want to do everything we can to support our colleagues from the EU.
Currently we have 332 staff from the EU – about 10% of our workforce. They are nurses, consultant psychiatrists, senior doctors, managers, domestic staff, porters, occupational therapists, psychologists and much more besides. Their contribution to our work is as valuable as anyone else’s, and we are clear that we will fight tooth and nail to make sure that they can continue to provide the very best care for our patients and their carers.
This tells me that caring knows no borders. Every single day I see that being caring and acting with professionalism are inherent qualities of dedicated healthcare staff, wherever you are from. The “national” in our name means we are all one service together. As we have seen when responding to the modern challenges we face, divided we fail our patients, together we succeed.
But we cannot (nor should we) pretend that this isn’t a worrying time. If you put yourself in the shoes of our EU staff, a lack of clarity and reassurance suggests there aren’t many who could honestly say they aren’t making plans for their future. Their fate and that of their families, many of whom have settled here and made London their home, hangs in the balance.
The discussion about residency rights is all about who can and who can’t remain after April 2019. It is hardly a warm way to discuss the hugely valuable contribution these staff members of EU origin make.
We need to reframe this conversation to one of why NHS staff from the EU should stay in the UK and continue their tremendous work. We know that skilled professionals are in high demand in other countries. The only way we are going to stop valued colleagues leaving is by strongly making the case for them to stay.
That means thinking innovatively about accommodation in high-cost areas like London, and it means being able to tell staff what their career might look like in 10 or 20 years’ time. This may be difficult to do as we can’t even confirm they will be allowed to stay in the country. As a trust we are doing everything we can to support our staff from the EU, including HR support and passing on practical information, and this is at a time when recruiting and retaining qualified clinical staff is a challenge, for us and for other trusts, in its own right.
But there is precious little we can do to reassure staff about the longer term and we urgently need some clarity from those closest to the ongoing negotiations. If it doesn’t come soon, I fear that staff will begin to take matters into their own hands and leave the service – leaving the NHS and mental health altogether poorer and diminished by the loss of their expertise, skills and care.
Monday 11 September 2017 10.12 BST