There is no healthy vision for care system without EU workforce

On 18 August, UK government papers on Operation Yellowhammer were leaked and published. The potentially devastating effects of a no-deal Brexit, detailed in the report, have been widely discussed and documented in the media since then.

By Alison Johnstone
Tuesday, 3rd September 2019, 6:00 am
Edinburgh is struggling to recruit and retain social care professionals. Picture: John Devlin
Edinburgh is struggling to recruit and retain social care professionals. Picture: John Devlin

One such effect that has received much coverage is the possible disruption to medicine supplies – a frightening prospect, not least to those who are currently undergoing lifesaving treatment. As if this was not disturbing enough, there is also the potential increase in staff shortages in health and care settings if EU nationals are prevented from working in the UK.

We are already experiencing a critical shortage of social care staff in Scotland. Just last week, Edinburgh’s Integration Joint Board acknowledged in their plan to transform health and social care that the “workforce is ageing in several areas and there is a constant struggle to recruit and retain health and social care professionals in the city”. Last November, a report to Edinburgh City Council’s Governance, Risk and Best Value Committee revealed that “increased demand for services and associated demographic changes results in significant financial pressures” and that “the potential impact of failure to manage this risk effectively could include direct harm to people”. This potential for harm will surely only intensify in line with increased workforce pressures.

Stark warnings to this effect were being issued back in 2016. At an evidence session held by the Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee, we were told that migration appeared to be the only way to ‘plug the gap’ in the social care workforce.

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Alison Johnstone is a Green MSP for Lothian

It was also revealed that there is little data on people from the EU working in social care. A representative from Unison revealed that “we do not know what percentage of the social care workforce are EU nationals but we know that EU nationals are a large chunk of that group”. This is extremely concerning as we cannot anticipate or plan effectively for the impact of Brexit without this data.

The Unison representative also clarified what action was needed before Scotland could continue to staff its social care services – “we need an absolute commitment from the United Kingdom Government that existing EU nationals will be allowed to stay. That should be said now, unequivocally, or people will start to make alternative plans and go. Secondly, we need a long-term arrangement whereby we can still recruit and retain staff from overseas, because we will need them”.

With neither of these actions forthcoming more than three years later, we are in danger of alienating the EU workforce that is helping to keep our social care system afloat. Scotland has always benefited from migration in both directions. Our health and social care services depend on it. However, I also firmly believe that open societies are happier societies. This is not just about ‘plugging the gap’, it is about ­demonstrating to EU nationals that they are welcome and valued in Scotland, and that we appreciate the vital contribution they make towards caring for Scotland’s people. We need to make this clear by firmly rejecting a no-deal or risk suffering the consequences.

Alison Johnstone is a Green MSP for Lothian.