Jeremy Hunt is the latest cabinet minister to be caught out by the eagle-eyed photographers on Downing Street, with the health secretary being pictured with a note suggesting that people would flee the UK if the government pursued a so called "hard Brexit".

Hunt was snapped with the memo before he attended a cabinet meeting in Number 10 on Tuesday 4 July. The document is most likely linked to health-related questions he was facing in the House of Commons later on in the day.

"The 150,000 EU nationals working in our health and care services do a brilliant job and we want them to continue doing it," the note read, later noting that 9% of doctors in England were EU nations.

Hunt, who has joined Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove in speaking out against the 1% pay cap on public sector workers, took to Twitter to address the gaffe.

"For avoidance of doubt I have never been advised or believed Brexit means people 'fleeing UK'. I was anticipating a question along those lines from MPs at health orals - which is why the phrase appears in my briefing note," he told his followers.

But Labour MP Chuka Umunna, a leading supporter of the Open Britain pressure group, claimed the document was telling. "Whether it was photographed by accident or design, this document hits the nail on the head – a hard, destructive Brexit will lead to more EU citizens who work in the NHS leaving our country," he said.

"Indeed, the number of EU nurses leaving has already increased since the referendum, which is putting our hospitals under great strain. Jeremy Hunt needs to make that point forcefully to the prime minister."

Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat chief whip, added: "Jeremy Hunt knows that Brexit will be a disaster for the NHS and it should be no surprise that the Health Secretary's team expect him to be challenged on this issue.

"We have already seen record levels of EU nationals leaving jobs in the NHS last year, and there has been a dramatic fall in the number of nurses from the EU registering to come and work in our health service since the Brexit referendum.

"This will exacerbate existing pressures on staffing in our essential NHS and social care services and risks threatening the quality of patient care."

The gaffe comes as the two-year-long divorce talks between the EU and the UK continues. Brexit Secretary David Davis and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier have agreed to prioritise the issue of the more than three million EU nationals in the UK and the 1.2 million Britons on the continent.

May, who has promised to cut net migration to "tens of thousands", announced in Brussels in June that EU nationals who had lived in the UK for more than five years could apply for a "settled EU status", describing the offer as "fair and serious".