The UK is expected to leave the European Union on the 29th of March, with or without a settled deal between the UK government and the European Union. A no deal-Brexit is still possible, despite Parliament voting against this last week. We need to reflect on how this could impact our health services in the UK.
A potential ‘no-deal’ scenario places the NHS’s ability to continue care in a precarious situation, with impacts on their ability to treat, care for, and staff their services. NHS facilities are seeing increased medicine prices, stockpiling issues, and substantial staff shortages.
The NHS has a strong relationship with the EU, importing around 37 million packs of medicine each month and exporting even more. A no-deal Brexit not only brings the continuity of this exchange into question, but also the UK’s ability to trade medicine with the rest of the world. The UK government will be required to develop their own trade agreements for the first time in a generation. With an agreement with the USA looking likely, we need to be aware of what new trade deals will look like and how they will impact all aspects of health. For example, the introduction of chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef as a part of these trade deals could seriously undermine the health of the UK public, as changes in diet have shown to increase obesity and the spread of disease.
The NHS’s ability to access and distribute medicine could also be called into question. The Brexit effect could pose difficulties in receiving clinical supplies and devices. Even talks of Brexit have shown to increase medicine costs without changes in the market. The government has instructed manufacturers to stockpile up to 6 weeks’ worth of medicine in the case of a no-deal Brexit. Still, NHS officials are uneasy about the government’s ability to secure the importation of vital supplies and medicines for the unforeseeable future without a Brexit deal.
The potential of a no-deal Brexit also brings into question the well-being and employment of various NHS staff, including EU nationals. 5% of the total NHS workforce is from Europe, with 10% being registered doctors and 4% registered nurses. The most recent Brexit deal allowed EU nationals a ‘settled status’ within the UK. This would allow them a temporary stay where they would be subject to a new migrant system established by government. This ‘settled status’ only allows individuals to stay in the UK if they earn at least £30,000 a year. This cut-off is higher than what most health care assistants and porters make, therefore denying them access to this status.
With a no-deal Brexit, there is currently no protocol. The NHS is already experiencing staff shortages, with 1 in every 11 posts currently vacant. With Brexit set out to further restrict immigration regulations, shortages are expected to increase. The impact of staff shortages will have negative affect onto the quality of healthcare NHS can provide. Various NHS managers have expressed how there is no continued planning for after Brexit and that a no-deal Brexit would be detrimental to the NHS’s ability to supply life-supporting services.
However, these risks can be avoided. The NHS can continue to maintain quality service if the UK government commits itself to policies that place health and well-being first.
There are different ways in which our health can be protected. But first and foremost, the UK government needs to prioritise the health and well-being of all those affected, including UK and EU citizens.