The fog of Brexit is engulfing the NHS. It’s up to Theresa May to provide clarity

European Union Staffing

Everyone knows that after seven years of neglect from the Conservative government, the NHS is undergoing a serious crisis of funding and staffing. The last thing needed is more uncertainty. That is exactly what the NHS faces with Brexit.

On Wednesday Theresa May will trigger article 50 and later this week health bosses publish the updated Five Year Forward View. It is time for the prime minister and the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to give the NHS and its patients the certainty needed through the Brexit process. May has already turned her back on the promise of £350m a week for our NHS and now she is walking away from her responsibilities to protect the health service through a turbulent Brexit process that will hit it hard.

The complacency in government is astounding. Last week Hunt published the department of health’s Mandate to NHS England to set “the government’s objectives and any requirements for NHS England”. Amazingly, the 24-page document made no mention of Brexit whatsoever.

Will health professionals from other EU countries be able to come to work in our NHS after Brexit, or will there be a cap on their numbers? As long as the issue is left unclear, more and more EU workers are voting with their feet and leaving on their own terms. In a recent survey, 42% of European health staff working here said they are now thinking of leaving the UK. Almost 5,500 have left since the Brexit vote according to NHS Digital, a 25% increase on the 2015 figures. And others are being put off from coming here at all: only 96 European nurses registered to work in the UK in December – that figure was 1,304 for last July.

So our first test of the government plans will be whether they deliver a right of remain for the 140,000 EU nationals working in the NHS and social care system. Secondly, on funding, we know that the EU’s Horizon 2020 scheme is due to invest £7.5bn in health research across the EU over the next five years, and the UK will be by far the largest recipient of those funds. We also receive EU funding from the Innovative Medicines Initiative, the European Cooperation in Science and Technology programme, and the Active and Assisted Living programme for older people.

This long-term funding is vital in giving security to those medical institutions and universities planning major research projects. They cannot just wait and see what will happen after 2019. So we need to know whether access to these funding streams will continue after Brexit. If not, how do the government propose to make up the shortfall?

Our third test is on reciprocal healthcare arrangements. It is a key principle that British citizens can obtain free healthcare elsewhere in Europe, just as they would at home. That is an important safety net for British holidaymakers, and for UK citizens living elsewhere in Europe. Does the government intend to maintain those arrangements? If not, how will it address the increased insurance costs for UK holidaymakers?

These are difficult and detailed questions, but they are all of absolute importance to the future of our health service and of our medical research sectors. There is no reason why May should refuse to give us the answers. That will allow us to understand with greater clarity what the impact of Brexit will be on the NHS – and most importantly, it will allow patients and staff the opportunity to scrutinise the government’s plans closely over the next two years.

The NHS is already in crisis over funding and staffing. But Brexit has the potential to tip those crises into disasters. Patients and NHS staff should not be bargaining chips in May’s hard Brexit negotiations. They want a world-class NHS delivering the best quality healthcare. As article 50 is triggered, the very least the public deserves is clarity and certainty from its government.

First published by The Guardian