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The Importance of Supporting Migrant Healthcare Workers as we Build a 'New Normal' for The NHS

by Luna Williams(more info)

listed in brexit and eu directives, originally published in issue 273 - September 2021

The 19th of July marked an event that many of us had been hoping for since the beginning of 2020; the total easing of social distancing restrictions across the UK.

This move,  which was laid out in the PM’s Roadmap out of Lockdown’ this February, was reliant on several factors. Included in these were that cases of Covid-19 remained manageable for the UK’s National Health Service, and namely that hospitals were able to cope with the number of admissions related to the illness while still being able to properly treat patients with other conditions, illnesses and injuries.

The fact that this has been possible has come as a relief for many, who can now socialize restriction-free with friends and family, and go about their daily lives in much the same way as they had been able to prior to the outbreak of the virus back in 2019 while still having access to healthcare services.

But before the country begins to think too retrospectively about the pandemic, it’s important to consider how the NHS was able to rise to the challenge of tackling the outbreak of the virus and caring for the people it has impacted. With this, it is also important to question how we can keep this in mind and continue to support it as we move forward.


Supporting Migrant Workers


How the NHS Responded to the Pandemic

In the wake of the pandemic, the NHS received resounding praise throughout both public and political spheres; the Prime Minister’s scheduled addresses to the public during the first, second and third waves of the virus directly praised health workers who were working to care for people admitted to hospital with Covid-19, and members of the public even took to the streets to clap in appreciation for NHS staff during early national lockdowns.

But despite this praise, gaps in support and staffing shortages across the NHS have meant that these health workers had to fight much harder to cope with the pressure that was placed on them by the outbreak of the virus in 2020.

Johnson’s winning election campaign, promising to build “40 new hospitals”, had begun to look shaky months earlier, when NHS providers found that only a small fraction of the money needed to fulfil this promise had actually been allocated to the project and the number was scaled down from 40 to six.

What’s more, moderate-severe staff shortages across several clinical areas have meant that the pressure on the NHS was even greater when the virus hit the UK.

Continued Staff Shortages

According to the Government’s UK Shortage Occupation List, General Practitioners, Nurses and Paramedics – as well as several other specialised medical roles – are all experiencing a ‘skills shortage’. What this means in practice is that the country is unable to fill these roles with domestic talent alone, and therefore needs to recruit from outside of the UK in order to ensure hospitals and surgeries have enough staff to meet demands.

Prior to Brexit day on 31 January 2020, the domestic labour pool included any national of an EEA country, but this has subsequently shrunk to include British citizens and settled people only.

 As well as promising new hospitals, Johnson’s election campaign also proposed to free up an additional “50 million” GP appointments and recruit 6,000 more GPs during 2020. However, the immediate public health concerns raised by the unexpected outbreak of the novel coronavirus meant that neither of these promises came to fruition. As it stands, the patient to GP ratio is the worst it has been in more than 50 years, with 60 GPs to every 100,000 patients according to data from the Nuffield Trust. Equally, the number of nationwide GP shortages facing a shortfall of 11,500 by the end of the decade.  

As well Governmental recruitment and retention drives honing in on GPs and specialist doctors, the Conservative Party also promised an additional 50,000 nurses were to be recruited in 2020. After winning their election campaign, this was reduced to 31,000 in the weeks that followed and, while some progress has been made in this area since then, the Health Foundation found that 1 in 10 nurse positions were still vacant this Christmas, when Covid-19 cases and hospital admissions hit a second wave. 

The Support of Migrants

Historically, international talent has played a huge role in helping to build and support Britain’s healthcare system and the NHS, going back to the months following the end of the second world war, when citizens of Caribbean countries (now commonly referred to as the Windrush generation) were invited to the UK to take on much-needed healthcare worker roles. These people were fundamental in helping to rebuild Britain’s hospitals and support and treat the general public in both the short and long-term.

Now, people from overseas make up more than 13% of NHS England’s total workforce. This includes citizens from the EU and beyond, who take on a variety of roles, from neurologists to nurses.

With most healthcare roles experiencing national skills shortages in the lead up to the pandemic, these people have been fundamental in supporting the British public through every wave of the Covid-19 virus – both on the frontline and behind the scenes.

This has been demonstrated on numerous occasions, with the PM personally naming and thanking two migrant NHS nurses who cared for him when he was taken to ICU with the virus back in April 2020.  

Moving Forward

In the same way as in other moments of national crises, non-British nationals have played a fundamental role in helping the UK to overcome challenges, and offered support to the British public while doing so.

As we move forward into a restriction-free, post-pandemic society, it is important that we do not forget the efforts of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals, including those from overseas and closer to home.

Despite many people’s understandable celebration of the easing of civil restrictions, recovering from the events of the past year and a half will take time and effort. As such, it’s important to bear in mind that the NHS is still overburdened; healthcare workers are now feeling the added pressure of tackling the backlog of routine and non-urgent patient cases that has built up as a result of the pandemic.

Going forward, the recruitment and retention of staff in the NHS must be paramount, particularly in light of the UK’s recent departure from the EU in January, which has reduced the ease of movement and recruitment from EEA talent pools.

While the UK Government has started to roll out provisions intended to encourage more migrant healthcare professionals to apply to NHS jobs (such as offering an NHS surcharge reclaim scheme for all visa-holding healthcare workers, and introducing a so-called ‘NHS Visa’ scheme), it’s unclear whether these will be enough.

Whether these are heightened wages, visa fee reductions or industry-specific recruitment schemes, policymakers must introduce further provisions in order to encourage migrant workers to apply for roles, as well as support education and training from within the UK for British citizens. Going forward, this must be a priority for the UK.



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About Luna Williams

Luna Williams writes for, medical education providers which provides training and revision materials for British and migrant GPs and specialist doctors and may be contacted via

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