UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has announced a referendum to be held on 23 June on whether Britain should remain in the European Union (EU). Whether the nation decides to stay in the EU will potentially have a profound effect on our health and social care sectors and its staff.

In the months leading up to the referendum, we will undoubtedly hear many arguments from both sides of the fence. In this article, I will focus on how the outcome of this referendum could impact the NHS and social services – a national service which has affected all of our lives at some stage.

The moral debate

The NHS is a British constitution which leads the way for health services across the globe. Morally, it seems wrong to turn away patients from the service simply because of their nationality. Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, recently caused widespread criticism by suggesting health tourism was putting increasing pressure on the NHS. This is a debate of which people tend to have quite a strong opinion. One thing which can be agreed on is that the high quality of our NHS allows the UK to stand out amongst Europe. Also, the service itself greatly contributes to the EU by accepting patients of foreign nationality residing in the UK.

The freedom of movement debate

Freedom of movement within the EU allows the NHS and social services to fill staff shortages with workers from outside the UK. Thousands of health and social care professionals have been recruited into the NHS from Europe throughout 2014/15. Without these individuals, the NHS and social services would struggle to function. Additionally, prejudice towards foreign workers is often eradicated through the life changing work completed by these healthcare professionals. For example, a recent case study was published which highlights the important role of eight Romanian social workers in improving children’s services at the London Borough of Newham.
On the other hand, the ‘out’ campaign will argue that cultural differences can affect patient attitudes towards care and their ability to understand, manage and cope with illness. Furthermore, immigration has become a burden on the already stretched resources of the NHS and social services. It has been argued that the NHS should focus on training and recruiting staff from within the UK rather than plugging the gaps through international recruitment. However, this has been a long running debate which has yet to come to fruition; chronic staff shortages still exist within the system, meaning the need for international recruitment remains essential.

The power debate

Remaining in the EU may mean the UK has less power over the NHS. The transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) is a controversial trade deal between the United States and the EU which opponents argue could lead to the privatisation of the NHS as it does not allow state monopolies, including public services run by the state. The Labour Party has called for the wording to be amended; however, this decision would ultimately lie with the EU commission.

On the contrary, the EU has improved working rights within the UK through legislative change which affects all of us including healthcare professionals. For example, EU law states that an individual cannot work more than 48 hours and also provides the right to equal pay and holiday entitlement. These benefits won’t necessarily disappear if the UK leaves the EU but they are testament to the strength of what can be achieved by working together.

In four months’ time, the country faces a huge decision to stay in or leave the European Union. Whatever the outcome may be, it will have a direct impact on generations to come, particularly with regards to our health and social care sector. As services reach their limit, will we decide to turn to our allies in Europe for support or will we make a new path for ourselves?

Osman Ibrahim
Associate Director
HCL Social Care

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