Save the NHS, stop Brexit

by Luke Lythgoe | 17.01.2018

The NHS is in a bad way. This January has seen the worst A&E waiting times on record, and bed occupancy in some hospitals running at 95% or over. Doctors are reporting patients dying prematurely on trolleys in corridors. The cause – cold weather and a spike in flu cases – has been described by one NHS executive as “entirely predictable”.

Clearly something needs to change. But those billing Brexit as the perfect opportunity for a healthcare overhaul are deluded or dishonest. Boris Johnson’s response has been to repeat, and even increase, his inaccurate “£350 million a week” referendum pledge. George Freeman, chair of the Conservative party’s policy forum, has described Brexit as a chance for “re-energizing our approach to domestic issues even if they have nothing to do with Europe”, including the NHS.

But Brexit is part of the problem. A bad Brexit will hit the economy and mean less money to spend on healthcare. Brexit is also a factor in the “haemorrhaging” of nurses reported by the BBC today: more EU citizens are quitting the health service than joining. Who is going to look after our sick and old people?

At the policy-making level, nothing about being an EU member prevented governments reforming the NHS in the past. However, Brexit is now a whopping distraction. In the short term, Brexit has left the government in disarray. All signs point to non-Brexit work falling by the wayside: the mass walk-out of Theresa May’s social mobility commission, the mess surrounding Carillion’s collapse. There’s no appetite for a decades-overdue revamp of the healthcare system.

The prime minister is also powerless over her squabbling ministers. In the recent reshuffle, May apparently wanted to move Jeremy Hunt – the health secretary presiding over the current NHS crisis. He refused, and even had his brief expanded to include social care.

Britain will be thrashing out its future trading relationship with the EU for years to come. That leaves a cloud of uncertainty over the regulation of new drugs and the immigration regime under which EU medical staff will have to work. Meanwhile, the government is so desperate to do a trade deal with Trump’s America that it may let big US medical corporations compete with parts of the NHS.

Making our overstretched health service work for Britain’s ageing population is a huge task requiring money and the government’s full attention. Fat chance of that happening unless Brexit is off the table.

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon