Brexit Adds 'Considerable Uncertainty' for the NHS

Peter Russell

December 29, 2020

The NHS and social care providers face considerable uncertainty as the UK prepares to 'go it alone' after leaving the European Union, health experts predicted.

The transition period ends on 31 December after a 'night before Christmas' trade deal ended ongoing uncertainty about the UK's future outside the bloc that had lingered since the 2016 referendum.

The treaty will apply from 1 January following a year-long transition period in which the UK continued to follow most EU rules.

However, the Nuffield Trust warned that any sense of relief about the deal was muted by two major sources of difficulty about leaving the EU: the flow of supplies to the UK, and the impact of new migration rules on health and social care workers.

Mark Dayan, Brexit programme lead at the Nuffield Trust, said that red tape required to get vital supplies in and out of the UK would "be multiplied" from Friday. He warned that this would make it more difficult and expensive for the NHS.

"We still do not know whether there will be mutual recognition of testing batches of medicines, or of the devices, like ventilators and masks, that have been proven to be so essential this year," he said.

Migration Problems for Health and Social Care

New rules on migration posed a hurdle, he said: "Long before these discussions started, it was clear that the free movement of labour, on which the NHS and social care have relied to plug gaping staff shortages for the past decade, would end. The new rules previously announced for 1 January will hit social care especially hard.

"Ultimately the migration system is now a free choice for Britain: if we want the functioning, protective, social care system the Prime Minister has promised, we may need to choose differently."

Last week the British Medical Association called for action to address NHS staff shortages. It said that recent data showed there were 7502 unfilled medical posts.

Concerns about the UK's imminent departure from the EU were echoed by the NHS Confederation. Its Chief Executive Danny Mortimer, warned in a letter to the Prime Minister before Christmas that the NHS will face challenges from January 1: "NHS leaders will be flooded with new rules, guidance and information and be required to make significant adjustments at breakneck speed – all while dealing with unprecedented COVID-19 and winter pressures. Whilst the preparations for the NHS are as good as can be, the circumstances could not possibly be worse."

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