Brexit’s impact on the NHS is already proving devastating, writes Ben Bradshaw
My most memorable doorstep encounter during the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was in the last week, with an elderly Exeter couple, solidly Labour, with an immaculate voting record and who had already voted by post. ‘Hello, Ben, yes don’t worry dear,’ they said brightly, ‘we’ve voted “Leave”.’
On seeing my facial reaction they asked apologetically: ‘Oh, wasn’t that what we were supposed to do? But we saw this big red bus with £350m extra for the NHS and thought it was Labour!’
By then I already knew from our canvassing data the referendum was lost, in part, but not solely, because of the Leave campaign’s lies about the National Health Service.
But just as the NHS moved opinions then, it, uniquely, has the power to change them now.
The latest polling shows concern about Brexit’s impact on the NHS and social care has a greater potential to change minds even than the economy. More people say they would be prepared to take a hit in their personal finances from Brexit, than see health and social care services damaged.
Yet that damage is already happening. Instead of more money, let alone £350m extra a week, the economic and fiscal fallout from even the softest of Brexits will mean the NHS getting less. The government’s independent forecasters at the Office for Budget Responsibility predict Brexit will cost £60bn.
In evidence to the health select committee this month every expert witness described the current staffing crisis in health and social care as unprecedented. The number of nurses registering here from other EU countries collapsed by 96 per cent in the 12 months after the referendum. Such a fall cannot wholly, or even mainly, be accounted for by new language testing, as some Brexiteers claim. Indeed, there is also been a 67 per cent increase in the number of EU nurses and midwives leaving the NHS. These are people not affected by the new tests.
Some of this will be to do with the collapse in sterling, which makes the United Kingdom a less attractive destination in general for workers from overseas. But, from the evidence the health committee’s inquiry has heard, most of it is to do with the continuing uncertainty over EU nationals’ status and the changed atmosphere some of them are encountering here. Janet Davis, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, told us the impact of Brexit on the existing staffing crisis in the NHS would be ‘devastating’.
That is with a deal. The ‘no deal’ scenario being increasingly agitated for by the Brextremists on the Tory benches and, shamefully, by one or two Labour members of parliament, would be much, much worse.
I have not even touched on the impact on our access to medicines and cancer treatment if we exclude ourselves from the European Medicines Agency or Euratom. Nor have I mentioned the cost if the several million British pensioners retired on the continent lose their right to free medical care and have to come home and rely on the state here instead.
Today’s political class will not be forgiven in the years to come if we stand by and allow this wanton destruction of the NHS because of Brexit.
Ben Bradshaw MP is a member of the health select committee. He tweets at @BenPBradshaw