The Department of Health does not know how many overseas staff work in Northern Ireland’s NHS.
The News Letter can reveal that whilst the English NHS has detailed data on the national backgrounds of virtually all its workers, with just six months to go until Brexit, the Province’s health authorities not been able to provide any such figures.
The UK’s exit from the EU will spell the end of automatic free movement of EU workers into the UK and may herald a tightening of immigration restrictions more generally – something some people have worried could affect a stretched NHS which relies in part on foreign-born personnel.
UUP health spokesman Roy Beggs said any failure to monitor staff details and trends properly would be “negligent”, “incredible”, and “shocking”.
The News Letter had asked the Department of Health how many foreign (that is, non UK or Ireland) staff were employed in Northern Ireland’s NHS and where they came from ,but it responded simply: “Information not held.”
Asked why it was not recorded, and how the department could plan for things like Brexit without knowing such information, it said: “Due to the free movement of workers from EU member states under the single market arrangements, health and social care employers historically have not asked applicants for their nationality...
“This has indeed impacted upon our planning for EU exit scenarios, and health and social care employers are working to establish the necessary information from their payroll information where possible.”
It suggested the News Letter go to the level of individual health trusts to find out more details about overseas staff.
The paper then asked the biggest one, the Belfast trust – but it has no idea either.
For example, in 2018 it said there were about 25,000 trust staff in total. Just over 7,000 gave their nationalities as British, Northern Irish, or Irish.
About 250 staff were listed as “other” – a category that covers Poles, Lithuanians, Indians and Filipinos and more.
But almost 16,200 workers was listed as “not known”.
Asked why it does not know the national backgrounds of the overwhelming bulk of its workforce, the trust said “although the Belfast Trust request that staff complete this information as part of Equal Opportunities Monitoring, it is not mandatory for staff to complete information regarding nationality categories”.
In addition, the News Letter asked the Department of Finance – ultimately in charge of public spending in the Province – if it has figures on the nationality of NHS employees.
It referred the News Letter to figures from the last census, which are seven years old, and do not answer the question anyway.
By contrast, the News Letter was able to obtain relatively-complete figures for the number of overseas staff working in the English NHS in 2018.
Out of about 1,204,000 staff, it recorded the backgrounds of 1,133,000 (though it stresses that it the information is self-declared, and may only reflect people’s cultural heritage, not nationality).
Over 988,000 gave their nationality as UK, about 63,000 named an EU country, and about 81,000 named a country somewhere else in the world.
Only 71,000 were unknown.
Ulster Unionist Roy Beggs, MLA for East Antrim, said: “It is clear that the NHS in England monitors very closely where it’s staff come from and even the nationality of staff who are leaving.
“I would have thought that monitoring country-of-origin employment trends would have been a vital component of our local NHS workforce planning. It would be shocking if the Department of Health and our local Health and Social Care Trusts do not do likewise...
“This information will be vital for effective workforce planning and to ensuring essential that NHS staff will be available to meet demands.”
He said failing to monitor staff trends would be “incredible, and indeed negligent”, adding: “This flaw in workforce planning needs to be quickly corrected.”
The Department of Health said: “The absence of centrally-held information does not preclude workforce planning... We do use a range of proxy data to assist with workforce planning, for example, flow rates of medical students to and from Great Britain, as well as professional registration data from the likes of the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council.”
It adds that its “workforce strategy... also recognises that there is a need to further improve our business intelligence in terms of data”.