Why Brexit is a health risk

Published on January 07, 2019

As a doctor working in the NHS, I believe that Brexit is a health risk for my patients and for the whole country. We need to have a People’s Vote to give the people who depend on the NHS – basically everyone – the chance to decide if what’s on offer outside the EU is better than the deal we already have inside the EU.

We were promised £350m a week more for the NHS during the referendum campaign. This turns out to have been untrue. The damage to the economy caused by any type of Brexit (the government’s deal or No Deal) is going to leave the whole country poorer. It will lead to financial pressure on all publicly-funded services, including the NHS.

Austerity has already left the NHS on its knees, and we are struggling to maintain services as it is. The funding “boost” promised by the Government isn’t nearly enough to deal with the shortfall and expected rise in demand (especially if a million UK citizens come back from living in the EU). There will also be significant extra costs to the NHS after leaving the EU, to do with staffing and visa costs, drug costs, exchange rates for imported items, and so on.

But the problems Brexit will cause the NHS – and is already causing the NHS! – are not just about money. We depend on staff from other countries – more than 1 in every 20 people working in the NHS is from the EU. Applications for nursing registration by EU nurses fell by 96% after the 2016 referendum – a clear case of people voting with their feet. Everyone working in the NHS can tell you about colleagues who are leaving or have left because of the uncertainty about their future here in the UK. We’re already desperately short-staffed and Brexit is making things worse.

We will also have problems with the flow of medicines into the UK; we will find it much harder to source drugs and radioisotopes from EU countries, and even just approving drugs for use is suddenly going to become a big problem when we drop out of the European Medicines Agency. The fact that we are stockpiling drugs in anticipation of a No Deal situation is a good example of what a risk leaving the EU poses to our health.

British citizens living and travelling in the EU can currently expect their health costs to be paid by the UK government – and the UK makes a net profit from EU citizens reciprocally seeking treatment here. That will end, when the UK stops having access to the European Health Insurance Card scheme, making it harder for UK citizens living and working in Europe to access healthcare.


Don’t forget research; at the moment the UK is at the forefront of international medical research, but that depends significantly on the free flow of researchers and indeed of funding from the EU. Even just within the UK, the Wellcome Trust (our biggest charity funding medical research) has warned that there is uncertainty about whether their support for UK research could continue as it currently does after Brexit. Leaving the EU jeopardises the significant advances in diagnosis and treatment that our scientists and clinical researchers are working on.


Leaving in a No Deal scenario is going to be even more catastrophic, with all the above problems magnified, but let’s be clear: any kind of Brexit is going to be worse for our health than the deal we currently have within the EU.


So now we know what Brexit is going to look like, even just for the health service – to me it looks like a major risk to health. The people of this country depend on the NHS. We should be given a chance to vote on Brexit now they know what the effects will be on our most cherished public institution.


Tom Dolphin

Anaesthetic Consultant, London (writing in a personal capacity

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