Leaving the EU Could Have Serious Consequences for Our NHS

30/03/2016 10:50

If your family is anything like mine, a normal conversation on a Sunday lunchtime would not involve a discussion about the EU referendum.

However, this weekend, over some expertly cooked schnitzel (courtesy of an Austrian mother-in-law), my family's usual analysis of Saturday's sporting results was replaced by a discussion about how Brexit might impact on the NHS.

This may not be the number one topic of conversation in homes across the country but the referendum in three months' time will undoubtedly be a defining moment for us all.

And as I say to anyone who will listen, family or otherwise, I am certain that our country's future will be best served by staying in.

Whether it's the economy, jobs, trade, or our ability to deal with the big issues such as international terrorism or climate change, I am sure we are better off working with our European neighbours to find solutions rather than going it alone.

As a Member of Parliament, I also know from the many conversations I have on the doorstep that people are keen to understand what their vote on 23 June means for them and for the things that affect their day-to-day lives - like the National Health Service.

I am the first to criticise this Government's appalling record on the NHS, and this weekend's irony of a Tory health secretary, who has plunged our health service into the deepest crisis in a generation, warning about future threats to the NHS was not lost on me.

However, I do believe that leaving the European Union could have very serious consequences for our ability to deliver high quality care and to build a care system fit for the 21st Century.

Take the issue of staffing. The Coalition's decision to cut nurse training places during the last Parliament and allow morale to hit rock-bottom has left the NHS in England with a chronic shortage of staff.

I agree with those who say that we should be doing more to train the next generation of home-grown doctors, nurses and care workers, but we must also acknowledge that parts of the system today depend on people from other European countries.

If we left the EU, what would happen to those staff? What restrictions would there be on recruiting new staff? Would existing staff have to leave if they didn't earn enough to meet income thresholds to renew visas? How would hospitals fill the immediate staff shortages without access to the pool of qualified staff from other European countries? I don't think this is a risk the NHS can afford to take right now.

Meanwhile I have seen leaflets claiming the opposite - that Europe is a threat to our NHS - but what those leaflets don't tell you is the huge benefits being a part of Europe already brings to our country's healthcare system and, ultimately, to patients.

In the seven years leading up to 2013, the UK received over £700million of EU funding for medical research projects; more than any other European country. Another £60billion of funding has now been made available to EU countries, with the UK already top of the table for approved grants.

These are big numbers, and for patients they mean money to help find a cure for dementia or investment in new medical equipment and facilities at their local hospital.

Even the staunchest advocates for Brexit cannot guarantee we will still have access to this funding, or define what impact leaving Europe will have on the UK's life sciences sector.

In the six months I have been Shadow Health Secretary I have seen the contribution EU membership brings to our NHS: support for our highly skilled workforce, world class facilities, access to the latest medical research and technologies, and the economic growth that comes from being part of the single market.

Walk away from Europe and we put this at risk. This is not a risk we should be prepared to take.

Heidi Alexander is the shadow health secretary and Labour MP for Lewisham East