With just six months to go until the UK leaves the EU, there is still far too much uncertainty and confusion around the implications of Brexit for patients, doctors and wider health services. I, and many others, will be attending the March for a People’s Vote on Saturday because we care deeply about the NHS which, now in its 70th year, is without a doubt this country’s most important and cherished institution. Brexit is the most significant and defining issue to face our country in a generation, and one that is likely to have huge implications for the future of our health service.
I am a GP. As a doctor, I know that a doctor’s first responsibility is to their patients - a role that requires us to be honest and to speak out on matters that concern us. Over the past two years it has become increasingly clear that Brexit represents a major threat both to the NHS and to the nation’s health, and it is for this reason that the British Medical Association (BMA) opposes the UK’s exit from the EU in its entirety. So much so that the BMA has added its voice to growing calls for the public to have a final say on the Brexit deal.
During the referendum, those who supported the view that the UK should leave the EU did so for a variety of reasons. For many people, one of the strongest motivating factors was the idea that Brexit would help save and strengthen our NHS. The vision described by those running the pro-Brexit campaigns was that by leaving the EU, we would see a rapid easing of pressure upon our hard-pressed GP surgeries and hospitals, freeing up doctors for consultations and treatment.
Perhaps the most seductive and significant claim however, was that leaving the EU would free up an additional £350million a week to invest in the NHS. This audacious claim may have helped galvanise millions of ordinary people to vote in favour of Brexit, and yet within 24 hours of the referendum result, it was casually downplayed and disregarded by leave campaign leaders.
The very idea that Brexit will enrich and energise our health service has increasingly revealed itself to be utterly untrue. This evidence comes both from the government’s own assessments and from the warnings of doctors and other health professionals working tirelessly on the frontlines of our NHS. While politicians continue to argue about what kind of Brexit people voted for in 2016, we can at least be sure about what they did not vote for. No-one who cast their vote in 2016 was voting for an impoverished or weakened health service.
No-one voted for a situation in which thousands of highly skilled EU citizens feel compelled to consider leaving the NHS, or to avoid coming to the UK in the first place. The BMA’s own survey of EU doctors found that 45% were considering leaving the UK and 18% of those had made firm plans to go.
No-one voted for a situation in which NHS access to radioisotopes, vital in diagnostics and the treatment of cancers, could be jeopardised. No-one voted to risk opening up the NHS to international corporate interests.
No-one voted to see their country’s health secretary admit, just seven months ahead of Brexit, that his government was directing drug companies to stockpile weeks’ worth of vaccines, blood products and other medicines, ahead of potential disruption to supplies caused by a no deal.
Many of those who are opposed to a second vote on Brexit, talk about the importance of respecting democracy. Despite raising concerns before the referendum, nobody could have predicted the chaos that Brexit would cause. Surely it is also one of the defining features of a democracy that those who participate in it have the right to change their minds and to voice their opinions again, once reality dawns. A reality entirely at odds with what was promised. The future of our NHS, and the future of our country, are too important for those of us concerned about the Brexit negotiations to remain silent and subdued passengers in a vehicle increasingly out of control.
Let’s make our voices heard and together ensure that the final say on Brexit is ours, the people.
Terry John is a London GP and chair of the BMA’s international committee