Will the NHS collapse under the strain of returning British expats?

Published:  16 Oct at 6 PM
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What will happen to the NHS should British retirees in Europe return to the UK?

The worst scenario for a huge number of British expats living in retirement in Europe is the chance of losing their rights to healthcare due to Brexit. Should this happen, their only alternative would be a reluctant repatriation to the UK, thus putting a massive strain on the already stretched NHS. Recent estimates of the cost of servicing an influx of former expats come out at around half a billion sterling.

The actual cost could be even higher than this scary estimate, should the NHS be forced to pay out to replace EU expat staff leaving the UK either voluntarily or as a result of a reduction in the number of immigrants allowed. Also affecting the NHS’s bottom line financially would be a rise in the cost of medicines, again due to the Brexit effect. A report by the respected Nuffield Trust contains calculations referring to the staffing of their care homes and home-care agencies, projecting a staff shortage of 70,000 should the British government halt the migration to Britain of skilled workers.

Suggestions that savings made by not having to pay EU membership dues could cover the extra costs of staffing the NHS and its associated services can’t be predicted and, should the maths be inaccurate, could result in even more pressure on already stretched NHS services. Some 190,000 pensioners are estimated to be living in EU member states, receiving their healthcare under a reciprocal agreement but, should the majority be forced to return to the UK, the influx could cost the NHS 100 million pounds – twice the total that’s reimbursed to European countries by the government for medical care.

Practically speaking, almost one thousand extra fully-staffed beds would need to be provided by UK hospitals, something which can’t be done at present due to the already crucial shortage of qualified and fully-trained staff. Another issue is the UK’s access to its present wide supply of medicines via the EUs licensing system, with no guarantees prices won’t treble post-Brexit. Extra costs could run to yet another 100 million or more.

Perhaps the worst threat is the shortfall of expat workers should the UK limit or even scrap the numbers of non-skilled workers allowed to enter the UK. At present, the NHS is dependent on EU expat nurses, due to serious understaffing caused by a lack of and also the cost of UK nurse training facilities. Over the past several years, research has shown one third of newly-qualified nurses employed in British hospitals are expats who trained in the European Economic Area. Concerned organisations are urging the British government to either increase the number of places in the UK’s nurse training courses or allow substantial immigration of fully-trained nursing staff from the EU.
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