Brexit is damaging the NHS and driving pressure on overstretched services, a study by healthcare experts has found.
A new report by think tank the Nuffield Trust warns that Britain’s departure from the EU has worsened recruitment shortages while pushing up the price of some medicines and making some more difficult to obtain. The report also states that Brexit could worsen health inequality.
The findings of the study are a far cry from the promises of the Leave campaign, which promoted the idea that leaving the EU would secure more funds for the health service.
Mark Dayan, Brexit programme lead at the Nuffield Trust, said it was “undeniable that the NHS has faced three of the most difficult years in its history” thanks to the pandemic and inflation. But he also said “the effects of Brexit appear to have added to the severe challenges and problems the NHS currently faces”.
“The economic hit of Brexit, combined with the worst cost of living crisis for a generation, is reducing living standards, creating additional need for health and care. Meanwhile a slowdown in EU and EFTA [referring to countries within the European Free Trade Association] recruitment is making shortages of urgently needed careworkers, dentists, and specialist doctors even worse,” he said.
“The UK has also apparently taken the worst of a period of medicines shortages which has swept across Europe. The fall in the value of sterling around the EU referendum, and the trade barriers erected since, are probably major factors in our unusually consistent and long-standing problems supplying vital products.”
The researchers say the NHS has struggled to recruit dentists, social care workers, and specialist doctors such as anaesthetists and heart and lung specialists since the EU referendum.
In the most extreme cases, recruitment has all but ground to a halt, with the researchers finding that despite the number of cardio-thoracic surgeons working in the UK having doubled in the five years leading up to the EU referendum, the rate of increase has now fallen to just 5 per cent.
The UK is also increasingly recruiting doctors from developing countries on the World Health Organisation’s Workforce Support and Safeguard List, such as Nigeria, Ghana and Pakistan, where clinicians are already in short supply.
Further, leaving the EU single market has had an effect on the supply and the price of medicines, the report says, with “a greater level of shortages across the board” as well as five Serious Shortage Protocols having been in effect almost continuously since the UK left the single market.
The government’s new trade barriers and a weak pound have also meant that the health service has “had to accept more increases in price on medicines, such as Prozac, as pharmacists have been unable to find them at the usual price”, the report explains.
The number of such “price concessions” has risen from below 20 to over 100, the researchers say, noting that “while similar increases have been seen in other countries, including France and Germany, instances have been unusually sustained in the UK and precede the pandemic”.
The researchers also warn that the economic hit from Brexit, which it is estimated will amount to around 4 per cent of GDP in the long run, is likely to drive poorer health outcomes going into the future, putting the health service under more pressure.
“There is a strong correlation between living standards and health, which will be impacted by falling living standards driven by rising inflation and the fall in the value of sterling,” the report says.
“Brexit risks particular economic consequences for areas of the country where industries are more affected by trade barriers, and may worsen embedded health inequalities following austerity.”
Tamara Hervey, a Jean Monnet professor of EU law at City University of London, said: “We urgently need an honest national conversation about the post-Brexit context for medicines, equipment and devices supply and NHS staffing.
“The health sector, generally speaking, would like a closer relationship with the EU’s standards. There are potential benefits from a looser relationship with the EU, but capitalising on them would involve courageous political decisions. Instead, we have drift and fantasies.”