Everyone in this country depends on the National Health Service. Over a million people use the NHS every 24 hours, and more and more people every year are living with long term conditions.
I work as an NHS consultant, and I am deeply worried about the effects Brexit will have on our health service. We are already stretched to the limit by years of inadequate funding, and Brexit in any form is likely to make things much worse.
The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Midwives, and the Royal College of General Practitioners are all sufficiently concerned about Brexit to support the call for a People’s Vote.
Our health system, like many other areas of British life, is closely linked to Europe, and we break those links at our peril. If we crash out of the EU with no deal, there is a significant risk of serious disruption to trade routes, including the import of food and medicines.
To give just one example, people with type 1 diabetes depend on insulin to live. However, we don’t make human insulin in this country; we import it all. People who rely on insulin to live are worried, understandably. The government insists that they are sure there will be adequate supplies of medicines in the event of a No Deal Brexit. They have instructed pharmaceutical companies to keep a six week supply stockpiled, which is fine… as long as they can guarantee that disruption (in this historically unprecedented situation) will definitely not be for more than six weeks.
I do not find ministers’ statements on this reassuring. Matt Hancock said that he was the largest buyer of fridges in the world, and that he had ordered 5000 fridges to store medicines. This turned out to actually be pallet storage in refrigerated warehouses; it’s a small difference, but when people’s lives depend on this, small inaccuracies undermine confidence in the overall plan. What else isn’t quite true?
Meanwhile there are the staffing issues. Our hospitals and community services are struggling to fill rotas already, and gaps are filled by staff doing additional shifts on top of a full working week. Brexit has added to the problem. The number of new applications by EU nurses to work in Britain fell by 96% in the year after the EU referendum. Our colleagues are preparing to leave, because they no longer feel welcome here.
There are other problems looming as well. The NHS is a world leader in medical research and innovation, but that depends on us being integrated into the European networks that provide the funding, brilliant researchers and essential academic connections science needs. The Wellcome Trust, the biggest funder of medical research in the UK, has warned that their support for research in the UK would be at risk if we leave the EU.
Other health problems loom: for example, our air quality laws come from Europe, and there is no guarantee that they would be continued after Brexit. Current ministers were amongst those in 2016 calling for EU environmental laws to be cut back, which does not inspire hope for the future health of our children’s lungs.
There’s something called the “normalcy bias”, which is a psychological flaw in human thinking that everyone will show in some circumstances. We have a tendency to believe that things will be okay, because they always have been before now. It means we fail to respond to significant risks when we see the signs. For example, when you were last in a big office or a railway station and the fire alarm went off, most people carried on as normal, assuming it was a false alarm, right? So you assumed the same. If you started to evacuate, you probably felt a little bit silly, because it’s always a false alarm. Until it isn’t.
We don’t have to do this. We didn’t know in 2016 what Brexit would be, and now we have a much better idea what it will look like. To me, it looks like a major risk to the health of the people of this country. They should be given a chance to say whether the Brexit on offer is what they want, through a People’s Vote. Time is running out to do this and MPs must act now, because in the end only the people can sort this out.
Dr Tom Dolphin is an NHS consultant in London