A decline isn't inevitable, says Sofia WeissFlickr: Pete

If there is but one indelible memory from last year’s Leave campaign, it is that promise, so boldly emblazoned on red buses across the country, that leaving the European Union would liberate £350 million per week for the National Health Service. This monument of British infrastructure is so beloved that Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s chancellor, once asserted it to be “the closest thing that English people have to a religion”. Whether or not his claim is entirely accurate, it is an indisputable fact that our health service plays an essential role in British public life, preoccupying politicians, healthcare workers and voters alike; a role that, post-Brexit, seems to rest on increasingly uncertain foundations.

“By 2020, the NHS is predicted to face a deficit of about 15,000 primary care physicians, with nurse shortages expected to be in the vicinity of 100,000 two years later.”

Much as they were at the nucleus of the campaign, financial concerns reign in the question of the future of our NHS, especially since this pledge has (shockingly) proved utterly unfounded. Britain’s annual net contribution to the EU in recent years has been a sum total of approximately £7bn, amounting to £137m per week. Even if the Treasury were to acquire all of this cold hard cash, it is unrealistic to believe that it would be at liberty to invest it all into the NHS.

A second, critical challenge to our health service concerns the implications of Brexit on staffing. By 2020, the NHS is predicted to face a deficit of about 15,000 primary care physicians, with nurse shortages expected to be in the vicinity of 100,000 two years later. It is not news that the UK has traditionally attempted to plug this gap through a long-standing dependence on doctors, nurses and social care staff recruited from overseas, in particular with those from the European Economic Area. Brexit will thus inevitably have implications for the countries from which the NHS recruits its medical muscle. Couple this with a conceivable exodus of existing employees back to their native countries and the health service could be left fighting for its life.

Nonetheless, the pivotal word above is ‘could’. Brexit does by no means necessary equate to the demise of the NHS, and the next steps of our government will prove key. Firstly, assuming that there is no severe economic slowdown in the near-future, parliament could conceivably allocate increased funding to the NHS – not of the scale initially suggested, but not of insignificant proportions either. Secondly, with the development and imposition of a healthy employee migration permit system, giving scope for both retention and a degree of (continuing) influx of EU workers into the UK, a staffing crisis could be averted. Thus, all hope is not lost.

What is patent however is that Theresa May’s lacklustre dictum on the issue cannot continue. “Brexit means Brexit” is an entirely useless statement when your key policymaker and her minions seem to have no idea what this Brexit will actually, in practice, entail. In the context of the NHS, it is this writer’s opinion that May needs to verbalise publicly how she will tackle this most critical of issues – and pronto

Sponsored links