MPs challenge Jeremy Hunt over future of EU NHS staff and £100m medical training costs

The government is confident it will negotiate a deal to allow EU staff to continue working in the NHS post-Brexit, health secretary Jeremy Hunt has told MPs.

Portcullis House, Westminster (Photo: Julian Dodd)
Portcullis House, Westminster (Photo: Julian Dodd)

In an evidence session on the state of NHS finances, Mr Hunt told the House of Commons health select committee that he had tried very hard to reassure the 'brilliant' EU staff who work in the health service.

Mr Hunt and NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens told MPs that Brexit could provide an opportunity to overhaul rules around competitive tendering for NHS services. Mr Hunt also told the committee that he believed the £100m pledged to fund an extra 1,500 medical training places from 2018 as part of his drive to make the NHS 'self-sufficient for doctors' would cover the costs of the expansion in full.

Select committee member and former Labour health minister Ben Bradshaw asked Mr Hunt: 'One very easy thing you could do now to reassure the NHS is guarantee that the thousands of NHS employees who are EU citizens will have a right to carry on doing their jobs here if and when Brexit happens, as Mr Stevens has requested. Will you do that?'

Brexit NHS impact

The health secretary responded: 'As you know these things are all part of the negotiations that lie ahead. But I have tried very hard to reassure the brilliant EU staff who currently work in the NHS, about 50,000 staff in total – {including] 10,000 doctors, 18,000 nurses - and to be very clear that we want them to continue to work in the NHS when we leave the EU and that we are confident that we will be able to negotiate that and that they do a brilliant job.'

SNP MP for Central Ayrshire Dr Philippa Whitford - an NHS surgeon - and committee chair Dr Sarah Wollaston - Torbay MP and a former GP - questioned Mr Hunt over the cost of plans to expand medical training posts by 1,500 places by 2018.

Dr Whitford said that based on his claim that medical graduates cost £200,000 to train, it would cost £300m - not the £100m pledged by the government - to deliver the increase.

Mr Hunt admitted the expansion of training would place extra pressure on Health Education England, but argued that the bulk of the cost of training the new cohort would come towards the end of their training - in the next parliament.

Costs in the current parliament would not exceed £100m, he claimed. 'We think in this spending review period - between now and the end of the parliament - the cost will be less than £100m because when you are training up to 1,500 more medical students the costs to HEE and to the NHS come towards the end of training period, when they are doing placements in hospitals.'

NHS training

He said the costs would be possible to absorb within the £116bn annual NHS budget', which would be rising over the current parliament.

Asked by Dr Wollaston if he was confident that at the end of these doctors' training 'there will be the funds to employ them', Mr Hunt replied simply: 'Yes.'

The health secretary also defended the government's record on outsourcing of NHS services, and rejected a claim from Dr Whitford that half of NHS services going out for tender were currently going to private providers.

Dr Whitford warned that services outsourced to private providers would 'never come back' to the NHS, because NHS services lacked the 'bid teams' to challenge for contracts and could not afford to 'twiddle their thumbs' waiting for services to come up for tender after a five-year layoff.

Responding to a suggestion from Dr Whitford that politicians were pushing the NHS to outsource services, Mr Hunt said: 'The rules about compulsory competitive tendering come from the EU. Obviously with Brexit we have the opportunity to look at all the rules that come from the EU.'

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens added that 2015 public contract regulations enforced by the EU had 'somewhat reduced our latitude'. He said: 'When we get to our Brexit negotiations we will have to think about whether we have any opportunities for any flexibility there.'

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