Brexit: Leaving Euratom will put UK at risk of losing access to vital medical treatments, leading doctor warns

Government ministers criticised for 'inexcusable' failure to foresee healthcare consequences of Brexit

Benjamin Kentish
Wednesday 26 July 2017 22:50 BST
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Nuclear materials are used in a range of medical treatments and imaging methods
Nuclear materials are used in a range of medical treatments and imaging methods (PA)

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Leaving Europe’s nuclear regulator will put patients in the UK at risk of losing access to vital medical treatments, a leading doctor has warned.

Withdrawal from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) as part of Brexit would make it harder for the UK to access nuclear isotopes used in cancer treatments and medical imaging, according to Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Euratom is responsible for coordinating and regulating the transport, use and disposal of nuclear materials in Europe, including many of the isotopes used in radiotherapy and some kinds of body scans.

Professor McKee said some of the most widely used medical isotopes can only be produced in specialised reactors, none of which are in the UK. The materials currently used in Britain are mostly manufactured in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.

Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), he said there was “no excuse” for government ministers’ failure to foresee the problems that leaving Euratom would cause.

“Although it may be possible for the UK to remain within existing arrangements, it will be exceptionally complicated and the UK’s position will inevitably be weakened”, he wrote.

“Crucially, the government has offered no real clarity on how any agreement might be achieved. The position paper on Euratom published by the government in July 2017 contained little detail even on nuclear power and did not mention medical isotopes.

“Ministers have no excuse for failing to anticipate this controversy. The problems were highlighted clearly in an article in the Financial Times in February 2017 and in briefings by nuclear industry experts.

“Yet, as with all aspects of the Brexit negotiations, there is no evidence of any serious planning.”

Professor McKee’s comments follow warnings from expert groups about the risks of leaving Euratom. Earlier this month the Royal College of Radiologists said it was “seriously concerned” about access to medical isotopes after Brexit and demanded assurances that current Euratom regulations will continue.

The British Nuclear Medicine Society, meanwhile, said leaving Euratom “will impact on the supply and cost of medical radioisotopes” and called for “greater clarity regarding the future arrangements”.

Government ministers have suggested the UK could remain an “associate” member of Euratom even after it leaves the EU.

However, the organisation falls under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which the UK Government has insisted Britain must leave as part of Brexit.

Professor McKee said the Government’s failure to foresee the heath-related consequences of leaving the EU was evidence for EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s reported claim that Theresa May is “in a different galaxy” when it comes to Brexit.

“Recent events suggest that nothing has changed”, he said, adding that the Government must act immediately to involve the Department of Health in Brexit negotiations and appoint a chief scientific adviser to the Department for Exiting the EU.

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