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by GK Strategy 31st March, 2016
3 min read

Brexit: What will it mean for the NHS?

As the EU referendum arguments rumble on, this week saw the potential impact of Brexit on the NHS enter the ring. Policymakers, influencers and campaigners have been speaking out on how Brexit will strengthen or undermine the already financially-stricken health service.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, writing in The Observer, made his feelings clear on what impact Brexit would have on the NHS. Hunt highlights the economic uncertainties that have dominated the Remain campaign’s messaging as having huge consequences for the NHS, arguing that leaving the EU will result in less money for the health service as government assesses the post-EU purse. With the NHS consuming the second largest budget in Whitehall, Hunt cited surveys from the LSE, Oxford Economics and the Confederation of British Industry who have warned that Brexit could cost the UK more than 5% of the size of the UK economy, thus reducing finances for the health sector.

In an article for the Huffington Post, Hunt’s adversary in the Commons, Heidi Alexander, pointed out the NHS’s dependency on the EU workforce to meet the rising demand for care, due to the staffing crisis the NHS faces as a result of reduced nurse training places under the Coalition government. Much like Hunt, Alexander argues that Brexit could see the loss of a significant number of the 100,000 skilled EU workers who are in the health and social care workforce due to visas and residency permit issues. Whilst there is an overall desire to see an increase in home-grown nurses, for the meantime both Hunt and Alexander agree that the UK cannot afford to lose more NHS staff. Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has also made the case that elderly ex-pats who would be forced to return to Britain will add to the health and social care workforce demand.

Co-operation with fellow EU members has its own impact on the health service, with the UK receiving over £700m of EU funding for medical research projects between 2006 and 2013 – more than any other European country. The UK is currently leading the table for approved grants in the latest batch of funding (worth around £60bn), which Alexander argues will mean more funds for research in areas such as dementia research and funding for innovative hospital equipment. Former health secretary and current chair of NHS Confederation Stephen Dorrell echoes Alexander’s claims, pointing to EU membership allowing NHS clinicians access to EU research programmes and greater cooperation with research communities that benefit areas including medical technology developments.

The other side of the fence, however, argue that the money saved from leaving the EU will mean the funding crisis facing the NHS can be properly addressed. Vote Leave’s Chief Executive Matthew Elliott has suggested that a vote to leave will mean the UK can stop “wasting money on EU bureaucrats” in favour of spending it on the NHS. Elliott has since been criticised by Labour Health Select Committee members Ben Bradshaw, Paula Sherriff and Emma Reynolds as pretending to care about the NHS as part of their Brexit campaign –pointing to the track record of leading Eurosceptics (including Elliott) in campaigning for cuts to NHS spending, reduced pay for NHS staff and increasing prescription charges.

Some health figures themselves have, however, voiced support for Brexit, most notably the Chair of the Health Select Committee Sarah Wollaston, who has said she doesn’t buy the argument that a post-EU UK would be unable to maintain close co-operation on matters such as science and technology. The Principal of the Cancer Vaccine Institute, Professor Angus Dalgleish, has utilised the ‘health tourism’ argument, stating that millions of EU migrants are putting an “intolerable strain” on the NHS. Estimates in 2013 put the cost of migrants using NHS care at £2bn a year, with attempts to introduce a surcharge only seeing £100m returned, way below the £500m target. Professor Dalgleish also links health tourism to the number of GP services that are struggling and the crisis in GP recruitment, as a result of EU migration adding to the workload demands.

With June 23rd less than three months away, the NHS is once again being used as a political football to tap into the hearts of the public – this time to make the case for voting in or out. How much this will impact those who are undecided remains to be seen.

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