Now we know Brexit will disrupt healthcare, shouldn’t we get a Final Say on the services that keep us alive?
The NHS transcends individual governments and party politics. The truth is that the health service will likely suffer financially if Brexit happens
What are the three things people most often wish their loved ones? Health, wealth and happiness. Health is one of the keys to a happy and successful life.
Now imagine someone told you that you had a choice – and that your choice could ensure the best supply of medicines if you got sick; the maximum level of funding and access for new clinical trials and treatments; the greatest possible number of experienced doctors and nurses and support staff to keep our hospitals running. I, for one, would bite their hand off. The choice I am talking about is staying in the EU.
Our EU membership has benefited our collective health and wellbeing – and we have the potential to benefit from it so much more.
So let us ask some blunt questions about Brexit. Does it stand to make us more or less healthy? Will it make it more or less likely that we get the medicines we need? Will it likely bring us more doctors and nurses or fewer?
First question. There are no circumstances I can foresee in which Brexit makes us healthier. Right now we have access to EU agencies such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which helps us deal with emerging medical threats. Then there’s the European Medicines Agency, which automatically brings us new treatments available in the EU’s much larger market, and access to new clinical trials. We also immediately benefit from the common regulation of new drugs, which saves us the money and bureaucracy of duplicating those processes. Our government is also currently required to adhere to the EU’s strict air pollution limits, which have saved many lives. The British Medical Association has, moreover, raised questions about what might happen if Britons in the EU lose the health insurance, which currently allows them to access treatment abroad.
Second, will it make it more or less likely that we get the medicines we need? The prime minister has said that we will not remain in the customs union under any circumstances. The EU’s Michel Barnier has also rejected the idea of staying in just the single market for goods – so-called “cherry picking”. That almost certainly means border delays and disruption under any Brexit scenario – and that jeopardises both pharmaceutical supply chains and the movement of key medication, one of the key reasons I tabled my successful EMA amendment to the Brexit Trade Bill.
A large proportion of our medicines currently enter freely and abundantly through the Channel ports. These include radioisotopes for treating cancer and insulin for diabetics, but also large numbers of generic medicines. These help to keep people alive. The government is currently talking up a no-deal scenario, which could collapse the ports of Dover and Calais, according to their own operators – but any form of Brexit risks disruption. Radioisotopes degrade quickly, and if held up at the border they will be rendered useless. Insulin, meanwhile, needs to be kept at a stable temperature and is also liable to damage if, for example, it gets overheated. The government may attempt to stockpile supplies but there is no guarantee there will be enough for everyone. Why would we choose to close ourselves off when right now we have all the medicines we need at our fingertips? Also, the cost of stockpiling drugs will cost the NHS millions if not hundreds of millions of pounds. Far from helping to fund the NHS, Brexit will be taking money away from it.
Third, will Brexit bring us more doctors and nurses or fewer? The NHS is one of our nation’s most prized institutions. Right now it has access to the EU’s brightest and best medical staff, who have come in their thousands to contribute to our health service and our country. Currently 10 per cent of our doctors and 7 per cent of our nurses come from the EU, with their qualifications instantly recognised here. Even if their future rights are upheld, many have already indicated that they feel unwelcome in this country and may leave. Last year, the number of EU nurses registering to work here dropped by 96 per cent, and 10,000 EU citizens left the NHS altogether. These are not just our doctors and nurses, but also the cleaners, porters and administrators who keep our hospitals and doctors’ surgeries running. All are valued and all are needed.
The NHS transcends individual governments and party politics. The truth is that the health service will likely suffer financially if Brexit happens. For one thing, the European Investment Bank has provided it with €3.5 billion since 2001 – sources of funding which will now dry up. But more importantly, even the government’s best analysis shows that Brexit will shrink economic growth – if there is less money in the Treasury coffers that means less money for public services.
I’ve practised as a doctor for almost twenty years, and been a national politician for eight. I have seen real problems in both the NHS and the EU. But is the solution for doctors who see problems with the NHS to leave it? Of course not. In the same way, I also know that the answer to those problems with the EU is to stay in the ring. I want our children to inherit the same opportunities, prosperity and security that my generation has enjoyed. To do that, we need to tackle the root causes of Brexit and stand up for the interests of the people and communities we represent.
Sadly, Brexit can only ever be an exercise in damage limitation. It is also a monumental distraction. The issues facing our health and social care systems need our full attention and we don’t need to take risks with our well-being. There are no circumstances where leaving the EU can help to better safeguard our nation’s health. I know that we can do better, not by reverting to the status quo, but by agreeing a new settlement with our European friends and neighbours. Now that we know what Brexit means, let’s offer the people a Final Say – and then get to work building a healthier, happier and more prosperous country.
Dr Philip Lee is MP for Bracknell, former Justice Minister, and a Best for Britain champion
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.
Sign our petition here