Funding the NHS formed a key part of the Leave campaign, with pledges to spend £350m per week on the NHS from the savings made on EU contributions. Within hours of the referendum result being announced, Nigel Farage admitted that this pledge was “a mistake” and that this additional funding would not in fact be available post-Brexit.
There remains uncertainty at this stage as to the precise long-term effects Brexit will have on the NHS and the healthcare sector as a whole. Ahead of the referendum, the Economist Intelligence Unit produced a white paper on the likely impact Brexit would have on the healthcare industry and its predictions have so far proved to be particularly accurate.
The effect on the NHS leaving the EU will be wide ranging, with all four freedoms of movement guaranteed by the EU (goods, services, capital and workers) affected. Predictions of the UK entering recession as a result of Brexit suggest that funding for the NHS will be put under further strain. The IMF has reduced its estimate for UK economic growth in 2017 by 0.9% and the Economist Intelligence Unit expects a fall in NHS spending of £135 per head by 2020.
The GMC has acknowledged that there will be implications for the way doctors are regulated, although it does not expect there to be any impact on the registration status of doctors already on the register. The GMC has identified some issues which will need to be addressed, including: how doctors from the EEA (EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) will in future access the UK medical register; how countries share information about doctors to maintain the integrity of the register; and how/whether UK doctors will be able to work in Europe.
We have already seen the short-term impact that the referendum result and the subsequent uncertainty have had – with EU workers in the UK facing an uncertain future, unsure whether they will be allowed to remain in the UK, and foreign nationals finding themselves victims of racial abuse on a scale not seen in decades.
This has real implications for the healthcare sector as the NHS relies on foreign healthcare professionals, both EU and non-EU nationals, to fill vacant posts in the NHS, due to a lack of qualified UK healthcare professionals – a contribution which the GMC acknowledges is “vital…to the UK’s health services and to the medical research for which this country is held in high esteem.” EU workers already in post will be worried about their future, potential employees from the EU are likely to be reluctant at this time to apply for vacancies given the ongoing uncertainties, exacerbating an already significant staff shortage issue.
Increased staff shortages will further raise the pressure on healthcare employers who must ensure that patients are not put at risk as a result, but also that the welfare of their employees is protected. Racial abuse in the workplace and stress from heavy workloads pose a real threat to which employers must be alive.
Judith Davison, associate and professional support lawyer