The smile that crossed the Chancellor lips when I asked him last Tuesday how much of the extra £20billion per year for the NHS was going to be funded by the PM’s ‘Brexit dividend’ was very telling. His best guess was almost none. In light of this week’s anniversary, we should take a moment to honour our National Health Service and remind ourselves of the risk Brexit poses to it.
70 years ago, the NHS was established as an institution for delivering free, publicly-funded healthcare, creating an iconic organisation which is the envy of many around the world and a symbol of Britishness. Our NHS is globally recognised, known for its comprehensiveness, effectiveness and equality of access. Founded in the aftermath of WWII, it is a national achievement that we can be truly proud of. The main goal of the NHS is to meet the needs of everyone, regardless of income. Since its establishment in 1948, it has grown to provide care to over 1 million patients, every 36 hours, with over 7,400 GP practices in England alone.
In recent years, the NHS has started to face challenges that could inflict real trauma on our nation’s health. A massive crisis in funding is leading in turn to a shortage of staff, in particular nurses, resulting in excessive workloads for medical staff throughout Britain. Add to this the urgent need to reform and invest in social care and we are facing a perfect health storm.
And then there is Brexit. At the time when they are in high demand, looming threats of residency restrictions and general uncertainty over their future in the UK, are making foreign doctors and nurses re-think their futures in the UK. At the moment, 96% of hospitals in the UK face a shortage of nurses. In July 2017, 1,304 EU nurses registered to work in the UK; this has now fallen to just 46 last April. Two years on from the referendum, and as the facts continue to emerge, it is now painfully clear that Brexit will make us poorer both financially, and in terms of much needed EU health workers. The real threat is a drop in NHS funding, post-Brexit. There is no chance of the post-Brexit bonanza promised by the Cabinet joker, Boris Johnson.
It’s a real possibility that the waves propelled through our economy by Brexit could end the ‘free at the point of delivery’ health service that we all cherish and trigger steps towards privatisation. These are very real scenarios that could play out should we leave the EU. Unless of course Theresa May’s proposed ‘Brexit Dividend’ shocks the world and turns out to have more substance than the previous false NHS claims in form of those big letters on the side of a red bus. Don’t hold your breath on that one.
The Lib Dems are proposing to protect vital healthcare services for our country through a 1% income tax increase. This dedicated NHS and social care tax would direct investment to priority areas of healthcare, such as social, primary and mental health. We have also long called for a cross party NHS and Care Convention, bringing together stakeholders from across the political spectrum, along with staff, patient groups and members of the public to look at how we can tackle the funding and workforce pressures on the service in the long term.
However, it is blatantly clear that the most important action we can take to protect and secure the long-term future of the NHS is to stop Brexit. If we fail to exit from Brexit, any proposed plans for improvement will be thrown to the wayside. Our once-envied health system is now heavily under-resourced in comparison with other developed countries, meaning that excellent hospitals, like my local hospital St Helier, face a constant battle to keep their heads above water.
It’s time this Conservative Government recognised the value of our NHS by funding it properly, confirming they will allow the people a final say on the deal and a chance, should they wish, to vote down the terminal illness that is Brexit - and what better week to do this in than the week of the NHS’ 70th birthday.