Is Brexit Putting NHS Patient Care At Risk?

16 Oct 2017

The UK has been a member of the European Union (EU) for over 40 years. Over this period, all areas of UK society have become entwined with Europe, and this includes the NHS. So, with more than a year since the ‘Leave’ referendum result, what effects if any, has Brexit had on the level of care the NHS provides to patients.

February 2017: The Parliamentary Health Committee (PHC)

In February this year, the PHC learned how Brexit was already impacting on the NHS.

During the UK’s membership of the EU, legislation supported the recruitment of healthcare professionals to the NHS, from countries throughout the EU. This recruitment went some way to addressing the chronic shortage of vital NHS staff. However, since June 2016, there has been an acute and sudden reduction in the recruitment of healthcare staff from the EU. Daniel Mortimer, the Chief Executive of NHS Employers cited Brexit as a significant factor in this reduction, driven by issues such as employer uncertainty, the resignation of existing EU staff and a reduction in the number of new EU healthcare personnel applying to work in the UK.

Mortimer’s claim was supported by David Lomas, a representative of the Association of UK University Hospitals. Lomas stated that people from the EU have been, ‘pulling out after having been offered jobs’ in University Hospitals. He also provided evidence that funding for research was also being impacted by Brexit. Now, rather than being of benefit to European grant applications, research teams were finding they were less successful if they named British scientists and researchers on their grant application forms.

July 2017: NHS Trust Finance Directors Concerned

The concerns voiced to the PHC are supported by data from the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA). HFMA is a UK registered charity and a professional body that is, ‘dedicated to protecting the public interest by setting and promoting the highest standards in financial management and governance in healthcare’. In July 2017, the HFMA published the results of its poll of NHS Trust finance directors. The directors were interviewed on the impact of Brexit on the NHS. Several directors were concerned that Brexit posed a, ‘medium to high financial risk’ to their organisation, while 90% were also concerned about the recruitment and retention of staff.

September 2017: Some Number Crunching

A report by NHS Digital, released in September of this year, shows that nearly 10,000 EU staff left the NHS between the period of June 2016 to June 2017, with doctors and nurses accounting for around 5,500 of these lost personnel. Medical research is also vulnerable to staffing deficits: around 16% of UK-based research scientists are from European countries, while the majority of research projects rely heavily on the EU for funding and collaboration.

However the future for the NHS post Brexit is not entirely doom and gloom. It is possible that UK specific rules and regulations could provide new, ‘opportunities for improvement, in areas such as competition law and flexibility of training’.

What Next? – Deal Or No Deal?

The UK Government has until March 2019 to reach a Brexit deal with the EU. Theresa May has emphasised that the UK will leave the ‘single market, custom union and other EU bodies in 2021, no matter the cost’. If no Brexit agreement is made by this time, more red tape and bureaucracy could become the norm. As for the fate of the NHS, there are worries that a, ‘no deal scenario’ could be ‘potentially catastrophic’.

Unfortunately as the government has yet to provide any details on the future of EU citizens in the UK, the loss of healthcare professionals from the NHS can only intensify. Any potential restriction on free movement by EU citizens to the UK will mean that ‘it will be very difficult for the UK to be self-sufficient in the NHS or social care workforce in the foreseeable future’.

In addition, the Brexit uncertainty continues to have a destabilising impact on the economy: this will continue to affect UK infrastructure, including the NHS. What is particularly pertinent about this fact is that the NHS will not actually be negotiated as part of Brexit – it is entirely a UK issue. So, while the Government is preoccupied with ‘fire-fighting’ the EU, the NHS is, ‘potentially [the] most high-profile piece of collateral damage’ of any Brexit deal or non-deal.

Who Knows What Will Happen To The NHS?

The future of the UK post Brexit is unclear simply because no agreements have yet been formalised. However, Brexit is already having a negative impact on the NHS. What is most concerning is that when the UK finally does disentangle from the EU, new unforeseen and additional problems for the NHS may arise: Brexit may seriously damage the NHS. On the other hand, there may also be new opportunities and benefits. The problem is, right now we just don’t know.

At Osbornes Law we care about how you are treated both by medical professionals at hospital and also under the care of private providers of health services. If you think that the care you or a loved one has received fell below the standards expected of a reasonably competent professional, then please do not hesitate to contact Partner and specialist medical negligence lawyer Stephanie Prior on 020 7681 8671.


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