It’s no secret that the NHS is under pressure. Across the country Trusts are running deficits, wards are over-subscribed, and waiting times are rising.
Brexit might be making all the headlines at Westminster, but out in the country most ordinary people still want the Health Service to be the Government’s top priority.
Some Remainers have tried to exploit this concern by arguing that leaving the EU will undermine the NHS by cutting us off from European doctors, nurses, and medicines. But in fact, there are lots of reasons to expect Brexit to offer a major boost to the Health Service – and we’re not just talking about the £350 million funding increase.
Here’s a statistic to get us going: since records began back in 2007-8, the UK has paid out £6.18 billion to other Member States for treating British citizens in their healthcare systems. But in the same time period we have recouped just £405 million from the EU for all the European nationals who have had treatment on the NHS! That’s a staggering repayment gap of £5.78 billion.
Nor is that the only way that freedom of movement undercuts the NHS. It also puts huge strain on our generous, free-at-the-point-of-use system too.
Over the past decade net migration from the EU has added 1.1 million people to our population – that’s a city the size of Birmingham. In the same time period there have been 1.5 million new registrations with GP surgeries. Just in the year to September 2017 net migration was 108,000 (another Darlington).
If that continues, figures from the Office for National Statistics and NHS Confederation suggest that the NHS would need a cash boost of almost £200 million a year, plus hundreds of extra doctors and nurses, just to maintain current service levels in the face of rapidly-increasing demand. And these figures don’t include so-called ‘health tourism’, where somebody comes here for treatment and then leaves before showing up on the immigration statistics.
Some Remainers will argue that the EU solves this because freedom of movement allows us to bring in extra doctors and nurses to cover the shortfall. But this actually creates even more problems! For example, because the EU insists that all Member States recognise each other’s medical qualifications, it’s impossible for the Government to maintain standards.
Brussels also prevents ministers from making all EU doctors working in Britain undergo systemic language testing. Since we introduced testing for new entrants in 2014 more than 900 have been refused entry for poor English. How many other medical staff with inadequate communication skills entered the Health Service before that date?
At present, we have no way of knowing. Even worse, the EU will soon introduce a new ‘European Professional Card’ which will exempt temporary doctors from language checks altogether – a clear risk to patient safety.
The important thing to remember is that nobody is proposing to ‘pull up the drawbridge’ when we leave the EU. Both the Government and the public support the introduction of a sensible, skills-based immigration system which will allow the NHS access to the very best staff, not just from Europe but from around the world. Brexit will give ministers the power to implement this, alongside a sensible system for reclaiming the cost of treating overseas visitors who use our Health Service.
It’s also not just about immigration. There are several areas where the development of EU law, intended to harmonise the ‘Single Market’, undermines not just delivering the best outcomes for patients but even the very model of a publicly-funded NHS. But that’s something for a future piece!