In October 2015, health secretary Jeremy Hunt told the House of Commons that ‘we need more midwives’. But since then, the number has increased by less than 0.7%. Across England, we have a shortage of around 3,500.
Of the midwives we do have, the latest figures show that almost 1,400 come from elsewhere in the EU. This includes almost 300 from Italy, almost 200 from Spain, and over 100 from Poland. These EU midwives make an invaluable contribution to our NHS, supporting and caring for women. Without them, England would face a shortage of 5,000 midwives. The consequences of that kind of shortfall are unthinkable.
Given the contribution EU midwives make, new figures from the profession’s regulator should set alarm bells ringing. The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) find that the number of midwives – qualified and ready to work – who are registering to practise here in the UK has plummeted since the referendum 13 months ago.
During June and July last year, 80 people from elsewhere in the EU registered with the NMC to practise as a midwife in the UK. During the first half of this year, the numbers registering each month were: 8, 3, 1, 1, 3 and 2. Put simply, the number of EU midwives wanting to come here has collapsed.
We need urgently to reassure EU nationals working in the NHS, and elsewhere in the economy too, about their right to continue to live and work here. Ministers have repeatedly spoken about how much they value the work done by EU staff in the NHS; it’s now long past time to back up those warm words with concrete action. And not only should we give guarantees to those EU workers already here, but we should keep the door open.
We need to train more midwives and other healthcare workers here in the UK, of course. But in England, where the midwife shortage is deep, this is being made so much harder by the abolition of bursaries for student midwives and the introduction of tuition fees, from which student midwives were previously exempt.
Midwifery students starting their courses this autumn will end up being tens of thousands of pounds worse off than those who started their courses last autumn. No wonder applications have slumped. Worryingly, this makes building up the workforce with UK-trained staff a much more difficult and challenging task.
Given the Government’s shaky, fumbling start to the exit talks, it is understandable if EU nationals resident here have little confidence that it will all end well for them. This is all the more reason for the Government to act decisively, quickly and generously towards them.
If it does that, maybe EU midwives will start to turn up on our shores once again – ready, willing and able to start work in our maternity units, and drive down that colossal midwifery shortage.