In praise of our international health service

Mitch Benn says that immigration is not the drain on the NHS that some claim it to be – but, in fact

Mitch Benn says that immigration is not the drain on the NHS that some claim it to be but, in fact, a vital part of it. Picture: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images. - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

MITCH BENN says that immigration is not the drain on the NHS that some claim it to be – but, in fact, a vital part of it.

Before I begin, a quick heads-up: at about the 200-word mark of this column I'm going to say something which, at first glance, might look a bit racist. It's not. Keep reading. Okay? Okay. Here we go.

So last week we had one of those unexpected but ultimately minor and more or less benign interactions with the NHS which we, in this country, are fortunate enough to be able to rely upon.

I'm sure you know the drill: sudden mystery pain, tolerable but significant (and unexplained) enough to warrant investigation; into the GP, probably nothing serious but take some of these and if it gets any worse go to A&E; got worse, into A&E.

One always steels oneself for a lengthy wait in A&E but as it was, the whole process of registration, examination, referral, consultation, diagnosis and prescription was over and done with in four hours. And, of course, as always, the total billable cost was £0.00.

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Something which occurred to me on the way home was this (yes, here comes the 'might look a bit racist' section, but keep reading): with the exception of the remarkably cheerful ladies on the front desk at A&E, all the NHS staff I'd met that day, from the GP to the nurse who took the blood samples, to the triage nurses at reception to the radiographer to the porters and examining physicians in the emergency ward, not one of them was what you'd call 'white British' (yep, that was it, bear with me, it goes on a little longer)... Every one of them either spoke with a pronounced accent and/or had dark skin (I know, it seems to be getting worse, trust me it'll be okay).

In other words, they were either all immigrants themselves or, at a guess, the children or grandchildren of relatively recent immigrants (nearly there, there's a point coming, I promise).

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And that brought something home to me; something which is, in retrospect, glaringly obvious but had never seemed so clear before: Immigrants aren't overwhelming the NHS. Immigrants aren't a burden on the NHS. Immigrants aren't taking advantage of the NHS. Immigrants are the NHS.

The picture painted by the anti-immigration lobby of the relationship between the NHS and immigrants is not merely incorrect; it's the literal reverse of the truth. It's not about overworked British doctors and nurses being run ragged by the demands of foreign patients, it's the other way around.

And the only one of the foreign-born staff members who had time to chat - the nurse who took the blood samples, and whom I think was Spanish - told us that her 'settled status' was still pending. She'd been here 14 years, paying taxes but denied a vote, and had already shelled out £65 a few years back for her resident permit, now rescinded with no refund, of course.

Immigration isn't bleeding this country dry, it's keeping us alive - quite literally where the NHS is concerned. We've never been able to recruit enough indigenous qualified personnel to staff the NHS adequately and with our aging population that's only ever going to be the case.

The idea trotted out by the Tiny Englanders that once we've purged ourselves of the interlopers we'll just "train up our own doctors" is simply a mathematical impossibility. Even if we could persuade enough high-scoring school leavers to enter the medical profession (which we've never been able to do) it would be seven years before they qualified as junior doctors, and many more years before any of them reached consultant level.

I bring this up because the whole political spectrum (including, depressingly, much of the currently rudderless Labour movement) seems to be lurching towards the decision that one must never challenge the entirely spurious notion that immigration is a drain on the country for fear of alienating 'economically anxious' voters.

And this isn't just an ethical or philosophical issue; it's a practical one. The idea that one must always "address the people's concerns" even if those concerns are baseless is incredibly dangerous. If you set out to solve non-existent problems you create problems where none existed.

So there you go, that's something else our movement can turn its attention to: creating and promulgating the positive case for immigration. Not even in order to challenge the case against or tell people they're wrong; just to present the opposing argument.

Oh, and another thing: the aforementioned Spanish nurse seemed genuinely to take comfort from our conversation, to be reminded that some people - in fact I'd suggest most people in this country are glad she's here and will do what we can to help her stay.

I'd suggest that's a conversation we should all have with the people in our lives who were born outside the UK. They're feeling kind of besieged right now and need to be reminded they're not alone.

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