We need to talk about the NHS

by Luke Lythgoe | 13.10.2017

Amid Cabinet infighting and stalling Brexit talks, one huge topic is being overlooked – healthcare. The NHS hasn’t even been asked to do any planning in case we crash out of the EU with no deal, its chief executive told the House of Commons health select committee this week. Yet pledges to boost the NHS’s budget by £350 million a week were so important to the Leave campaign’s referendum win.

It didn’t look good for the NHS early on when the health secretary was excluded from the Cabinet’s Brexit committee. The media are little better. Take, for example, the limited coverage given to a peer-reviewed article in the Lancet, perhaps the UK’s most well-respected medical journals, warning of Brexit’s impact on the NHS.

The Lancet article concluded that the impact of Brexit on healthcare will “range from somewhat negative to very negative, with few opportunities”. What’s more, “the harder the Brexit, the worse the effects, with no deal being the worst of all”.

Staffing is part of the problem. An estimated 60,000 EU nationals work in the NHS with a further 90,000 working in adult social care. One in ten doctors in the UK graduated in another European Economic Area country. Brexit is driving them away.

Theresa May has repeatedly failed to guarantee EU citizens’ rights. This week she was flummoxed when asked what would happen if there was no deal – the very scenario she had just threatened – lamely saying the government was “doing work on that at the moment.”

The NHS’s finances will also be hit. Brexit will knock the economy, meaning lower tax receipts and less money available for healthcare. On top of this, the Economist Intelligence Unit has estimated extra recruitment costs due to scarcity of staff and higher prices of imported medicines will increase the NHS’s overall costs by 4%.

The European Medicines Agency, which authorises medicines across the EU, will also no longer be based in London. The best we can hope for is to pay for some kind of observer status. That’s taking control? In the worst case, we’d be excluded entirely and have to set up our own costly and less efficient regulator.

Much else is at risk. For example, access to shared information on cancer outcomes and pooling expertise to treat people with rare diseases.

The claim that Brexit will save the NHS is a placebo which is about to stop working. We must change course before more damage is caused.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon