Sir Bruce Keogh condemns racist attitudes ‘unleashed’ by the Brexit vote, and seeks to reassure staff they are highly valued
The medical director of NHS England, Sir Bruce Keogh, has thrown his weight behind overseas staff working in the NHS and expressed his total condemnation for racist attitudes that have emerged since last week’s Brexit vote.
Speaking at the International Festival of Public Health in Manchester, Keogh said: “Recent events have unleashed a cold wind of change and racist attitudes disguised as politics, and as a result there are some in our NHS staff who feel less valued than they used to. We will not tolerate that in our NHS.”
Keogh said the general atmosphere had undergone an unwelcome change. He made reference to a conversation this week with a senior surgical consultant from overseas, who revealed that he no longer felt welcome in the UK.
Keogh said the NHS faced “really, really tough times” in the next year because of its financial settlement, compounded by the uncertainties created by Britain’s vote to leave the EU, which he said would lead to lower-quality services, longer waiting lists and the need for “unsavoury questions about which services we can afford and which services we cannot”.
He forecast a period of “creative destruction” while the country and the NHS digests the impact of the referendum and works out how to keep the NHS going in times of austerity by making efficiencies. He said this process would be impossible with a discontented and disenfranchised staff.
In acknowledging the debt that the NHS owes to its overseas staff, Keogh sought to reassure them, saying: “Please note: you are highly valued and you are wanted.”
According to figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre from September 2015, the proportion of NHS workers, excluding GPs, in England recorded as British was 78.5%. The proportions of staff from other EU and Commonwealth member countries were relatively similar to one another: 3.6% were nationals of other EU countries and 4% were nationals of Commonwealth countries.
To NHS critics, some of whom regard it as a drain on the economy, Keogh responded that emerging evidence suggested that as a “semi-integrated health service”, the NHS might be the best possible model to cope with today’s complex health problems. But he said it would require more efficient working and an investment in innovation to cut costs.
While regretting the Brexit decision, he pointed out that wars had been responsible for some of the greatest medical advances, including modern nursing thanks to Florence Nightingale in the Crimean war, the ambulance in the first world war and the NHS itself in the second world war. The current turbulence following the EU referendum requires innovation that might lead to the step change in services that most people working in the NHS acknowledge it needs.
In his view, the NHS needs to move from a health delivery business to a knowledge transfer business, in which the mobile phone will become the focus – as a means of monitoring individual health, a channel for information and a means of accessing personal medical records.
The NHS has a proud history of firsts, including the smallpox vaccine, the test-tube baby, MRI scans and stem cell transplants, so Keogh raised a hypothesis that the NHS could use the advantage of its ability to pool skills to find ways to make the UK a magnet for global research companies, by cutting the time it takes for health advances to reach a patient to from 15 years to five years.
He said: “Really good things can come out of really hard times.”