Migration and healthcare - the main themes of the UK elections

Britain's state-funded National Health Service is highly dependent on migrant workers. Instead, politicians have promised to reduce immigration in their fight for votes ahead of the 4 July general election.

The ruling right-wing Conservatives and the main opposition centre-left Labour Party, which is tipped as the winner of the national vote, are promising to take action on the key battleground but are keen to preserve the UK's valuable but depleted National Health Service.

The Conservatives want to raise the minimum wage needed to get a visa for skilled workers in the UK to combat record levels of migration into the country. Their opponents argue that this would worsen the recruitment process.

Labour wants to recruit and train more British staff, arguing that the NHS has been starved of cash by 14 years of Tory rule and has become too dependent on foreign staff.

The issue has also caught the attention of voters after Brexit champion Nigel Farage last month led the hard-right minority Reform Alliance party, which campaigned for a complete immigration freeze.

Yet foreign workers are vital to the National Health Service, which provides universal free healthcare but has been plagued by strikes over pay in recent years.

Commentators and industry experts have warned of a clampdown on the influx of health workers, and an exhibition at a London museum highlighted their often-overlooked vital role.

"It's a huge institution, with one in ten UK workers working in it," says Matthew Plowright, director of communications at the Migration Museum.

"It has needed people from all over the world from the very beginning," he added.

The museum is showing an exhibition called Heart of the Nation, which details how thousands of doctors and nurses from around the world have joined the NHS since its creation in 1948.

It shows how many health workers fled the war-ravaged United Kingdom to start a new life in Australia, Canada and the United States, causing a shortage of staff and prompting the authorities to start recruiting overseas - particularly in countries of the former British Empire, including the Caribbean.

Today's National Health Service in England employs about 1.2 million full-time staff, but about a fifth of them are non-British - the most common of more than 200 different nationalities are Indians, Filipinos and Nigerians.

However, the number of employees, especially nurses, is considered too low.

"The UK is very dependent on international recruitment of nurses," noted Martin Campbell, an international policy expert at the Royal College of Nursing.

"Of all the countries in the world, we are one of the most dependent," he told AFP.

Naomi Fulop, professor of healthcare organisation and management at University College London, added that the entire UK sector was suffering from a workforce crisis.

"It's a workforce crisis and it's in the NHS. It is also in the care sector. There is a lack of training (and) a lack of new people coming into work," she explained.

The UK is issuing visas for health and care workers to help address chronic staff shortages.

Many exhausted health workers chose to leave the profession after the Covid-19 crisis.

Meanwhile, the UK's exit from the European Union in early 2021 has restricted the influx of key healthcare workers, as well as those in other sectors such as tourism, hospitality and agriculture.

"Recently, and especially since the pandemic, there have been high levels of stress that have caused people to leave" the NHS, Fulop said.

"So there's a retention problem with doctors, nurses and others retiring early. Brexit has contributed to the source of staff the NHS had from EU countries drying up," she added. | BGNES


By Veronique Dupont, analysis for AFP