Things like this are exactly what cause me angst about joining the Labour party.

To be fair the headline “Keir Starmer: Too many people from overseas recruited to NHS” is a little selective, perhaps misleadingly so. Within the same interview Starmer also said he’d encourage immigration for different types of jobs. He also acknowledged that we have a desperate need for more NHS staff. But his proposed solution was that the UK needs to do way more in terms of increasing training opportunities and making jobs in the NHS bearable enough that any sane person isn’t so deterred by the conditions that they wouldn’t want the training in the first place.

I’m fully on board with that as a plank of the approach. It’s absolutely necessary. But it’s not an either/or situation. We have a NHS staffing crisis right now. Earlier this year it was calculated that around 110,000 NHS vacancies were unfilled. A British politician with the wellbeing of their constituents in mind should use whatever reasonable means we have to solve it.

Starmer is not known to be a naïve or stupid politician so when he said “I think we’re recruiting too many people from overseas into, for example, the health service” I’m sure he’d have understood how that might sound.

What’s particularly gruelling about this example is that reducing the immigration of medical workers isn’t even a popular policy. In the latest poll I can find, most people are actively in favour of immigration in terms of increasing the supply of doctors and nurses in the UK.

From page 15 of the British Future report on attitudes to immigration this year:

55% of respondents to this survey commissioned from IPSOS, designed to be representative of the British pouplation, would prefer recruitment of migrants as nurses to increase, with only 13% against. The figures for doctors are very similar.

Even most Conservative party supporters are in favour! Compared to Labour supporters they’re more likely to say the numbers should be reduced, but only by a few percentage points.

Of course this might not be apparent in the public discourse. Inevitably there is a certain percentage of the population who would rather see the immigration numbers go down than sustain the NHS. They’re loudly represented on social media, likely encouraged by the recent Conservative tendency to seemingly try and recreate a US-style culture war to our shores.

This is not to say that what job you do necessarily should be the basis of your ability to immigrate to the UK - I believe it shouldn’t be. But the point is that there is likely little need to “strategically” appear to be against immigration to fill NHS positions if that’s what’s going on, because most of the population actually wants to see more.

There certainly is a moral case to be made against encouraging immigration to fulfil Britain’s unmet medical needs, but it’s a very different one. As Kollar and Buyx write in their review of this phenomena:

Health-worker migration, commonly called “medical brain drain”, refers to the mass migration of trained and skilled health professionals (doctors, nurses, midwives) from low-income to high-income countries. This is currently leaving a significant number of poor countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, with critical staff shortages in the healthcare sector. A broad consensus exists that, where medical brain drain exacerbates such shortages, it is unethical…

Simplistically, one foreign nurse moving here is potentially one less nurse serving the country they were originally in. If done en masse, probably some recompense, ideally of a structural nature, should be given. However, this debate doesn’t seem to be the one that interests the politicians, media or general public at present.