How Brexit and retirement could affect our NHS workforce

Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital in Cramlington.
Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital in Cramlington.

Just 1.5% of NHS hospital and specialist staff serving Northumberland are from the EU, suggesting the risk from Brexit is low, but this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Dr Bernard Groen, strategic planning lead for NHS Health Education England – Cumbria and North East, presented a series of statistics about the workforce to Tuesday’s (April 30) meeting of Northumberland County Council’s health and wellbeing committee.

Looking at secondary care (hospitals and specialists), he produced data for Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospitals in Northumberland and North Tyneside, and the Northumberland, Tyne and Wear (NTW) trust, which provides mental-health services, albeit over a wider area of the region.

There are 230 EU citizens (208.46 whole-time equivalents) working across both trusts, 256 from the rest of the world (230.72 WTE) and 14,761 from the UK (12,954.96 WTE).

However, when you look at certain skill areas or specialities, the percentages can jump up – 16.21% of staff in general psychiatry are from the EU, with another 22.58% from the rest of the world, while 10.09% of those in general surgery are from the EU, plus a further 13.39% from elsewhere internationally.

Dr Groen pointed out that sometimes the possible risk from Brexit is proportionally very high because of the small numbers of staff in that speciality, which could affect service delivery if they left.

For example, 40.4% of the paediatric surgeons working for Northumbria Healthcare are from the EU – that is, two of the 4.95 whole-time equivalent posts.

Clearly, Brexit doesn’t mean that these people will leave, but if they were to go, a student starting undergraduate medical training now wouldn’t reach this level of expertise until 2038, Dr Groen said.

He also presented data about the retirement profile for GPs in Northumberland as well as nurses working in secondary care.

The figures for GPs show that the risk – generally looked at by seeing how many are over 55 – is not that high, with 7.72% of family doctors aged 56 to 60 and 1.01% aged 61 to 66.

But more than a third of GPs in Northumberland (33.89%) are between 45 and 55, so there is potentially more concern about the coming years.

Dr Groen said: “Northumberland is good at training GPs and good at retaining them so there’s not much retirement risk. The question is if you have enough GPs in the first place.”

There’s a similar story for secondary-care nursing at Northumbria Healthcare and NTW in that the retirement profile post-55 ‘looks okay’, but there’s a spike after that with large numbers of nurses aged 45 to 55.

However, one relatively recent development which can make a difference, Dr Groen said, is the introduction of flexible retirement options, for example, allowing people to take some of their pension while still working part-time.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service