By Olivia Bridge

SINCE Theresa May’s Withdrawal Plan has faced monumental defeat time and time again in the House of Commons, it looks possible that the UK could crash out of the EU without a deal in little over two weeks’ time.

However, a ‘no deal’ Brexit coupled with the Government’s overtly ambitious post-Brexit immigration vision will only serve to aggravate the staff 'crisis' growing across the UK’s healthcare sector.

It’s no secret that the industry relies heavily on EU and international expertise: around 17 per cent of care workforces and 12.5 per cent of NHS workers – accounting for 233,000 and 144,000 roles respectively – are filled with non-UK talent. Yet the NHS is on the precipice of collapse as vacancies are only accelerating in the sector. According to a September 2018 Skills for Care report, there is a current care worker shortage of 110,000.

Hospitals and care homes up and down the UK have felt the strain – including Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (OUH), where unfilled vacancies have risen to a staggering 750 care workers and 450 nurses across the OUH’s four hospitals. Following from what was described as a 'Brexodus' of EU staff abandoning their posts in the UK as a result of the EU referendum, CEO of OUH, Dr Bruno Holthof, found Oxford lost 8 per cent of its supporting healthcare staff.

Across the UK, Skills for Care found 900 adult social care workers quit their jobs every day between 2015-16.

Brexit, underfunding, high turnover rates and stagnant wages have all contributed to the shortfalls.

However, Oxford locals predict the high cost of living in the city combined with the fact that staff do not receive the same wage weighting as their London colleagues is heavily deterring both local and European talent from filling vacancies in Oxford.

As the city prepares to piece itself back together, shortages are only expected to exacerbate the issue, as the Government hinders the sectors’ recruiting efforts twofold: after Brexit, EU healthcare staff will be required to apply and pay for a Tier 2 Work Visa.

Not only does this exempt migrant supporting staff and care workers, since the majority fall short of the £30,000 minimum income requirement of this visa, but those who do bypass the threshold may be deterred entirely due to the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) being doubled in price this January.

For healthcare professionals on a five-year visa, the IHS costs £2,000, allowing migrants to have access to the NHS while in the UK.

But with Brexit inching nearer, the replacement of Free Movement for the healthcare sector – particularly in Oxford – is prohibitively expensive, restrictive and coming in at a wholly precarious time. Sobell House was forced to close a third of its beds last May while Churchill Hospital has been forced to withhold chemotherapy treatment for cancer patients due to its 'unsustainable' deficit of nursing staff.

As Oxford and indeed the whole of the UK braces itself for the estimated 1.5 million people to reach age 75 or over, if current trends persist, care worker shortages could grow to as high as 400,000 as soon as 2026.

This only begs the question: is now the right time for the Government to be hiking up visa prices and inflicting extreme charges on our invaluable healthcare staff?

As the sector desperately attempts to stay above water, it certainly seems as though Brexit and the Government’s immigration plan drags it back under.

Without radical change to Oxford’s recruiting efforts such as matching wage prices and relaxing the IHS charge for medical staff, shortages, ward closures and patient delays will only become a common occurrence, painting an extremely bleak picture for the future of Oxford’s vital healthcare services.

Olivia Bridge is a political correspondent and commentator for the Immigration Advice Service