UK MEPs warn Brexit will damage NHS

200 protesters march in defence of the National Health Service (NHS) in Norwich in 2013. [Roger Blackwell]

If the UK leaves the EU, there will undoubtedly be consequences for the National Health Service and public health ― and mostly for the worse, warn a cross-party selection of British MEPs.

Public healthcare has become one of the emerging issues in Britain’s referendum campaign on the country’s EU membership, scheduled on 23 June.

Not least since there are a number of uncertainties relating to the central question of whether or not the NHS would be in a better shape if the country were inside or outside of the EU.

“A potential Brexit would have a huge impact on health in the UK, and on the future of our National Health Service (NHS),” Glenis Willmott, an MEP representing the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, told

She added that without nurses and doctors from other EU countries, the NHS would not be able to function as it does now. Some 26% of NHS doctors are from abroad.

Catherine Bearder, an MEP from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), likewise emphasised the high number of EU migrants working as doctors in the British healthcare system.

Currently, as a member of the bloc, British nationals can easily access healthcare in other EU member states, and European research programmes allow scientists to work together on life-changing new treatments.

“Brexit would blow a hole in the international collaboration that is vital for delivering a world-class health system,” Bearder said.

Health campaigners protest

Though the EU has few powers over how member states design their healthcare systems, EU membership indirectly influences public finances, workforce and the available funding for medical research at universities.

Should Britain leave the EU but remain part of the single market, it would also determine which consumer rights protection laws the UK will have and whether British citizens can continue to participate in cross-border healthcare schemes.

Last week, more than 200 health professionals, including two former chief executives of the NHS and several medical professors, had an open letter published in The Times where they argued that “health services, health research collaborations and public health protection are more robust within the EU.”

Simon Wessely, a professor of Psychological Medicine at King’s College in London and one of the signatories, argues in a blog post that “money, people and research” will be negatively impacted, should the UK leave the EU after the in/out referendum on 23 June.

Less money would be available for the NHS, which would be put under further financial strain should the UK cuts its ties to its biggest market and sees the cost of selling abroad rise.

Divided over science and research

Moreover, the UK’s position as a leader on science and research would likely come to an end as the UK will receive less EU funding and academics lose their freedom of movement across the EU, claims Wessely.

At the moment, one third of EU-funded science collaborations are led from the UK, but this will surely change when the UK no longer influences the EU’s science policy.

Wessely’s last point about an EU membership’s impact on science and research is one that divides British MEPs.

UKIP’s Science Spokeswoman MEP Julia Reid (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy), a research biochemist by profession, called it “scaremongering.”

Before the UK joined the EU, there was freedom of movement for scientists throughout Europe and the world, Reid said. Now the UK’s current immigration policies are deterring scientists from outside of the EU to come to the UK, she argues.

“Seven out of the top ten European Universities are in the UK, four of which are in the top five. It is our research and academic excellence which will attract investment in scientific research to the UK , not the fact that we are part of a failing political union,” Reid said.

Julie Girling, a British member of the euro-critical European Reformists and Conservatives (ECR) group in Parliament, has meanwhile decided to back the UK Remain campaign, not least because an EU membership boosts the UK’s academic institutions, and thereby jobs.

“British universities are strong supporters of us remaining in Europe. Much has been said about their exceptional performance in gaining research funding from Europe ― that benefit is well known. What this shows is the way EU membership creates jobs and growth across the board,” Girling said.

Higher standards

Girling also believes that an extensive body of EU legislation has lifted standards on ― among other things ― food safety, labelling and animal health.

For Willmott, who is a member of the Healthier in the EU advisory board, the highlights of the EU’s work on improving public health include cooperating on combating air pollution, having common rules on public health concerns like tobacco, and funding innovative research.

She led the work on the update of the clinical trials legislation in the European Parliament, and tried to make it easier for researchers to work across borders and conduct trials in a number of different countries at the same time, widening the pool of participants.

Now she worries that Britain will enter a long period of uncertainty.

“There is no guarantee of any legislation being kept or lost, and the lifesaving work enabled by the clinical trials regulation is just one of the reasons I will be campaigning for the UK to remain a member of the EU,” she said.

Greens see TTIP as biggest threat to NHS

Leaving the EU will not remove the “real” threat to the NHS, which is the ongoing free trade negotiations with the US (TTIP), according to MEP Keith Taylor from the Greens.

“I, like many campaigners, recognise the threat of TTIP, but leaving the EU won’t protect us from damaging trade deals. The Conservative Party in the UK “are the biggest cheerleaders for TTIP and, if we were to leave the EU, would pass equally dangerous bilateral trade deals which threaten our most valued public service,” Taylor told EURACTIV.

The greatest threat facing the NHS comes in the form of “pro-privatisation politicians passing damaging domestic legislation which cripples the health service,” Keith said.

“I and my European colleagues, alongside campaigners from across Europe, have a chance to stop TTIP ― we will continue to act in the NHS’ best interests and reject any deal which threatens our health service,” the Green MEP added.

EURACTIV sought a comment from the European Commission on the consequences for public health if Britain leaves the EU. But a spokesperson said that the EU’s executive does not answer “hypothetical questions.”

During his campaign for re-election in 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union and organise a referendum to decide whether or not Britain should remain in the 28-member bloc.

The British PM said he will campaign for Britain to remain in the EU after a two-day summit in Brussels where he obtained concessions from the 27 other EU leaders to give Britain “special status” in the EU.

But EU leaders had their red lines, and ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.

The decision on whether to stay or go could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.

The campaign will be bitterly contested in a country with a long tradition of euroscepticism and a hostile right-wing press, with opinion polls showing Britons are almost evenly divided.

  • 23 June: Date for the UK's EU in/out referendum.
  • 27-28 June: EU summit.
  • July-December 2017: UK holds rotating EU Council Presidency.

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