With two months to go until June’s landmark referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union, politicians and campaigners on both sides of the debate have turned to the NHS as their latest battleground to sway public opinion.
Those in favour of remaining in Europe argue that leaving the EU would damage the country’s financial stability and directly impact upon NHS funding, while the Brexit camp claim that leaving would actually help shore up our health service. Amongst the scaremongering and posturing there are undoubtedly nuggets of truth to be found; so what would a break from the EU mean for the NHS and Britain’s healthcare workers?
Jeremy Hunt believes Brexit would threaten NHS
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has recently spoken out on the damage that a British exit from the EU could inflict on the NHS’s staffing and infrastructure. With NHS funding already in a precarious state, he argues that Brexit would cause immediate damage to the UK economy and that the financial shock would “inevitably mean less money for public services like the NHS”.
These concerns certainly seem to be borne out by independent research from various bodies – including the London School of Economics, the CBI and PricewaterhouseCoopers – which suggest that leaving the EU would have a rapid and lasting negative impact on employment, household income, and the UK economy as a whole. In the face of such a weakened economy, NHS funding would undoubtedly come under serious threat.
Hunt also warned of a possible exodus of NHS staff in the event of a Brexit vote. Around 100,000 skilled EU workers currently occupy nursing and other vital jobs in the UK health and social care system, and he suggests that many of these valuable workers could be driven to quit the NHS and leave Britain because of uncertainties about residence permits or visa requirements post-Brexit.
Other pro-Europe campaigners, including former Conservative health secretary Stephen Dorrell, have pointed to the importance of the NHS having access to the latest healthcare technologies and an international medical research community, much of which currently relies upon EU research programmes and cooperation. Dorrell argues that exiting Europe would irrevocably jeopardise such collaborations.
This infographic on Medigo’s blog contains some interesting stats about the NHS and the EU.
Opponents claim Brexit would strengthen health service
Campaigners who want Britain to leave the EU have dismissed Jeremy Hunt’s warnings as scaremongering. The chief executive of Vote Leave, Matthew Elliott, suggests that ditching our commitments to the European Union would actually free up more cash for healthcare: “If we vote to leave we can stop wasting money on EU bureaucrats and instead spend our money on our priorities like the NHS.”
Others have argued that leaving Europe will reduce the burden on the NHS as independence would give the UK government greater control over immigration from EU member states. Conservative MP Priti Patel said: “Current levels of migration are causing unsustainable pressures on our public services and we can see that the NHS is creaking under the strain.”
Former health secretary David Owen has also argued for leaving Europe, principally on the grounds that the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a major trade agreement between the United States and the EU, could lead to the risk of irreversible privatisation of the NHS. Owen believes that decisions that could have such an impact on UK healthcare should not be made by ‘unelected’ European commissions and legislative bodies, but by the ‘elected’ British government. His critics, however, have pointed out that public healthcare would be specifically exempt from the agreement and the NHS would be unaffected by TTIP.
While speculation on the precise impact of a Brexit decision on the NHS will no doubt continue up until the date of the referendum, it is clear that a decision to leave the EU will have a lasting effect – for better or worse – on the health service, its funding, and its future.
We’ll be writing more on the Brexit debate and how a split from the EU might affect our specialist sectors, so please share your opinions with us in the comments section or via our Facebook page.