foreigners and ethnic minorities on the front line in UK hospitals

Staff from the British health care system, the NHS, applaud outside the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London on April 9.
Staff from the British health care system, the NHS, applaud outside the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London on April 9. KEVIN COOMBS / REUTERS

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's words of thanks to the medical staff at London's St Thomas Hospital, " who (him) saved your life ", caused a sensation, Sunday April 12, specially those addressed to "Jenny from New Zealand and Luis from Portugal", the two nurses who watched over him "Continuously for forty-eight hours (…) when everything could have changed. "

This statement brought to light a phenomenon well known to the British: the National Health Service (NHS), the public and universal health service which they worship, is largely dependent on foreign personnel. Jenny and Luis are far from an exception: according to a study published in July 2019 by the House of Commons, 13.1% of NHS staff for England do not have British nationality (i.e. 153,000 people out of a total 1.2 million). The figures are even more impressive for doctors: 37% of them graduated outside the UK. And according to the latest data published by the NHS (in March 2019), 40% of its doctors (British or not) are of "non-white" ethnicity (mainly Asian).

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This dependence on foreign personnel or "BAME" (black British, Asian or from other minorities) is an old phenomenon: the development of the NHS in the 1960s coincided with a strong immigration from the Commonwealth and ex-colonies British. By far the largest employer in the country, the NHS has pursued an intense policy of recruiting across borders, particularly in India and Pakistan, to fill its recurring shortage of doctors. It is also struggling to recruit nurses (40,000 were missing in 2018) and continues to welcome professionals from around the world, attracted by higher salaries or its reputation for excellence.

"Happy end" for "Jenny and Luis"

The story of the Portuguese Luis Pitarma and the New Zealander Jenny McGee, the two caregivers distinguished by Mr. Johnson, ended in happy ending. Others, especially among the "minorities" of the NHS, have had a much darker journey since the start of the epidemic. The ten doctors who died of coronavirus on April 12 were all of “BAME” origin: Anton Sebastianpillai, 70, who came from Sri Lanka to practice geriatrics in south-west London, Adil El Tayar, 63, a surgeon of origin. Sudanese, Jitendra Rathod, 62, practitioner in Cardiff (Wales), Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, 53, urologist in East London…

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