Raphael Vassallo has already dragged me to court on one thing so I know I’m poking some sort of sleepy dragon here but his article about “Britain poaching our nurses” because of the UK’s supposedly advantageous status as a non-EU member state is composed of the lies, misinformation, and twisting of facts that was typical of the insidious right-wing nationalism that for decades gnawed on Britain’s enthusiasm for belonging to the rest of the world.

You can read – and you should read – Raphael Vassallo’s article. It is linked on the written version of this podcast which also has several other links to back up what I’m about to tell you.

The following summary of Raphael Vassallo’s original article is no adequate substitute for a reading of the full thing. But if you are determined not to read it, the gist of his argument is that nurses are quitting Malta for the UK because the EU can no longer prevent the UK from giving third-country nationals its citizenship, while Malta is being prevented from doing so because it is an EU member state. Also thanks to the fact that the UK is no longer an EU member state, it is doing far better than the EU at fighting covid.

Bottom line: EU membership is bad for your health.

Raphael Vassallo makes abundant claims, quotes figures left, right and centre, but does not provide a single source to back his affirmations. With a little help from a friend, I have done some research and confirmed he’s talking out of his arse. I hope to address the utter dearth of facts in Raphael Vassallo’s article by providing evidence that refutes his Tory, isolationist, reactionary perspective on things.

I will avoid addressing all his claims that there were predictions of “reverting to primitive barbarism”, “grips of cataclysm recession”, and a “Third World hellhole” that would follow Brexit. No one made these predictions. But pointing out that British people have not had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive leaving the EU, does not amount to any evidence that they did the right thing.

I will briefly refer to his argument that living in a country within the EU significantly increases your chances of being killed by covid. He quotes figures without citing sources and draws his own conclusions without clarifying what he means by “worst-hit by covid”. Is that based on rates of infection? Or rates of hospitalisation? Or death rates?

The following figures are from JHU CSSE Covid-19 Data and Our World in Data as at 07:25 (UK time) this morning, 8 February 2021, taken from a live link fed on a The Guardian report from 2 February. The UK has the 4th highest all-time covid death rate in the world. In the EU, Belgium and Slovenia have a higher death rate than the UK. Also in the EU, 25 other countries have a lower death rate.

In the last two weeks, the UK’s covid death rate was still the 4th highest in the world. In the EU, 2 member states are worse off than the UK. The other 25 have lower death rates.

This is hardly evidence that EU-membership in and of itself is a relevant consideration either way.

The UK has a lower rate of covid cases since the pandemic began than several other EU member states. But is EU membership a factor? The US, Israel and Switzerland have higher covid case rates. Is EU membership to blame? Of course not.

Like your garden variety climate-change-denying, creationist, isolationist, nationalist flat-earther, Raphael Vassallo pulls numbers from thin air, without reference to sources and without basis in real-world evidence, to present his ‘alternative truth’ as equally valid to scientific data and then uses his home-crafted myths as the foundation for his political conclusions.

Raphael Vassallo says nurses are quitting Malta in droves because the UK is “offering them a better financial package than we can; and also, by offering UK citizenship to both the nurses themselves and also their extended families.”

The “better financial package than we can” pay, should, in principle, be dismissed as irrelevant. UK salaries were already more competitive than Malta salaries when, until a few months ago, both countries were EU member states. Salaries are not regulated by the EU but by market realities that have not changed significantly since the UK quit the single market less than 40 days ago.

But even the idea that the reasons nurses might be quitting Malta for the UK in pursuit of better pay needs to be backed up. A study published last year by the UK’s Royal College of Nursing and Oxford Brookes University found that nurses are the lowest paid among all healthcare professionals in the UK and, compared with other occupations, their earnings, which start at £24,214 in the NHS in England, increase less over their careers. That’s €27,606 at today’s rate of exchange.

The 2021 financial estimates published by the ministry of finance say that a staff nurse in possession of a diploma in Malta starts at €18,724. That is about 68% of the starting salary for an NHS nurse in England. Adjusted for purchasing power between Malta and the UK using World Bank data, that comes to £22,758. There is, therefore, a real-world differential in the salaries of nurses between Malta and the UK of 6%. A difference, no doubt. But nothing spectacular. Nothing that on its own would cause some irresistible brain drain from Malta to the UK.

There’s also a bigger picture. You can’t just see what you’re going to earn but what sort of life you can live with that money in the country where you’re going to earn it. An August 2020 briefing paper for the UK House of Commons reported that OECD figures for 2020 suggest that the UK has among the highest levels of income inequality and that was measured when the country had not yet left the single market. Eurostat figures place income inequality in the UK higher than the EU average.

Nurses in the UK are at the wrong end of those figures. Which means that when comparing living in both countries as a nurse, even with a bigger pay packet you risk living a relatively poorer life.

That leaves the other competitive advantage of being outside the EU, that Raphael Vassallo claims there is and that is that the UK because it can, is ‘offering its citizenship to nurses and their extended families’. Complete bollocks.

The UK does not – I repeat, does not – have a ‘citizenship by investment’ program and does not and never has offered its citizenship to attract immigrants or even poach them from Malta.

The UK has something called a Tier 1 visa scheme which allows someone who invests £2 million in the UK to acquire residence status. They would then be able to apply for ‘indefinite leave to remain’ after 5 years living in the country and only if they pass language tests and satisfy the other requirements all other applicants must satisfy anyway. A year after that, they can apply for citizenship under the same conditions as anybody else.

There is a fast track to leave to remain. If you invest £5 million you can apply for indefinite leave to remain after 3 years (instead of 5). And an even faster track if you invest £10 million, but you still have to wait for 2 years before you can apply for indefinite leave to remain. And neither of those faster tracks amount to some automatic entitlement to citizenship.

Nor are nurses likely to be in a position to invest 2, 5 or 10 million pounds in the UK economy before they secure a job with the NHS. The notion is not even funny. Nor is Raphael Vassallo’s claim that the UK is inviting third-country nationals to import “their extended families”. The UK government on its citizenship website warns that it is very difficult for a third-country national to bring anyone in to settle in the UK, apart from their spouse or partner of 2 years. Difficult, and expensive. The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford reports that a partner on a five-year route to settlement will have to pay at least £7,000.

As for Malta, let’s cut the crap, please. No one at the European Commission or anywhere in the EU is asking Malta to prevent people who invest millions in the country’s economy from being allowed to live here or from acquiring citizenship after a number of years where they have demonstrably lived here.

That is a Euromyth in the vein of a Telegraph reporting on European law to rename Bombay Mix into Mumbai Mix, or Boris Johnson writing about a ban on prawn cocktail crisps, or the Daily Mail whimpering about 27,000-word legislation on cabbages, or the Sun panicking about a legal limit on cleavages exposed by barmaids or the entire British tabloid community in mock shock about a ban on curved bananas.

The European Commission is objecting to Malta’s offer of European citizenship to people who have never lived here, do not intend to ever live here, have invested nothing in the Maltese economy, intend to invest nothing in the Maltese economy and generally have had and intend to have no relationship with the country. Cutting a cheque to the government and renting a garage without a toilet for 5 years do not, in the real world, fit in the description of ‘investment’. That’s not something the UK did when it was a member of the EU or is doing now that it has left it. At all.

Take out the citizenship offer myth and what you’re left with is the reality of what it takes for a third-country national to be allowed to work in the UK. If we’re talking about the impact of Brexit, by any measurable account it is harder to move to the UK now than it was before membership precisely because the UK’s principal motivation for leaving the EU was to tighten immigration controls (not to open them up).

Here’s the real impact of Brexit on the NHS. The Independent quoted answers from NHS hospital trusts to Freedom of Information requests showing that more than 22,000 EU nationals have left the British health service in the three years following the Brexit referendum. A July 2020 study by the Waterford Institute of Technology showed that European nurses stopped going to work in the UK because they no longer felt welcome in the country. New barriers have been created for frequent commuting nurses, particularly impacting Irish nurses working in the UK. And that’s not to mention the impact on funding for research in the area.

Not only is it untrue that nurses from outside the UK are offered citizenship to work there, but the country also imposes blinding costs on immigrant nurses just to keep their visas going. Read a New Statesman article that describes the costs paid by a 44-year old migrant working as a nurse for the NHS.

“Every few years, when it is time for Natasha to renew her visa, she must make a complicated selection of payments. First, there is the visa fee, which varies depending on your circumstances; the standard fee ranges from £610 to £1,408. Then there is the health surcharge; a fee introduced in 2015, which currently bills migrants £624 per annum for the NHS. Applicants must pay this upfront when visas are renewed, for every year their application covers. If you are applying for a three-year visa, that is £1,872. If you have children, this charge increases.”

That’s about £1,000 a year in administrative costs which eats up a big chunk of the 6% differential in the UK-Malta salary comparison. Some of these costs appear to have been reduced somewhat for NHS employees in the past year but not to a degree that significantly reduces the burden of these costs.

If it is true that third-country nationals working for the Malta health-services are leaving for the UK, we have not yet seen any figures or details about how many are doing this. We have seen their union’s claim which if it is using this argument as leverage to negotiate better conditions for nurses, they will have all the blessings I can send their way. Nurses are heroes. They should be paid well and theirs should be a profession people aspire to join and compete to be the best at.

But yesterday’s Times of Malta feature on the subject suggests that the reason third-country nationals are thinking of leaving is subtler than calculating salaries. In spite of living here for many years, paying taxes, contributing to the health of our nation, even purchasing an apartment and making Malta their home, they continue to be pushed around by administrative processes intended to make them feel as permanent aliens, unwanted and living here on mere tolerance and on borrowed time.

That is not something the UK these days is any better, or any worse than we are at. But it is something that we can be better at if we realised that being racist and bullying immigrants and looking down at brown people because we feel skin colour (a paler shade of brown in our case) gives us the right to treat immigrants as second-class citizens, is harmful to our health.

We can instead continue to behave like Tories and blame the EU for what is entirely our responsibility, lying to our own people about European laws and restrictions that do not exist and exciting the intuitive xenophobia of an island community by presenting the example of the UK as a paradise where people are not yet eating each other for want of food.