Government orders hospitals not to reveal Brexit impact assessments to protect 'commercial interests'

Requests for information about effect on staff numbers and supply of goods and services should be refused, advice says

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Thursday 21 March 2019 18:10 GMT
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Hospitals have been ordered not to tell the public about any damage they expect to suffer from Brexit because it would hurt “commercial interests”.

Requests for information about the impact on the supply of goods and services, and on EU staff numbers, should be refused, the department of health and social care has said.

Releasing the information could cause trusts “premature financial harm, and so possibly put public wellbeing at risk,” hospital bosses were told.

The guidance was revealed as Theresa May increased the threat of a no-deal Brexit if MPs still refuse to pass her deal, arriving at the Brussels summit – meaning hospitals would have to trigger emergency plans next week.

Unearthed by the Health Service Journal (HSJ), it goes as far as suggesting the relevant exemptions under the freedom of information act (FOIA) that could be used to block requests.

The advice was revealed after the HSJ submitted FOI requests to every trust in England, asking for their self-assessments of the impact of Brexit.

The department then issued guidance stating: “Our advice at this point is that trusts should not share this information, as we consider it to be commercially confidential.

“Release of the self-assessment results could prejudice the commercial interests of the entities involved in the exercise (you should consider S43 of the FOIA).

“Also, release of details could cause health and social care institutions premature financial harm, and so possibly put public wellbeing at risk (you should consider S29 of the FOIA).

“You will note that the templates issued were marked as ‘Official Sensitive’ on the basis that the content would not be shared publicly.”

Each trust’s FOI lead should be responsible for considering which exemptions to apply and the wording of the response, according to the guidance.

Despite it being issued, several trusts chose to release their entire self-assessments. Some have also included parts of the information in their publicly-available board papers, the HSJ said.

Nevertheless, around 150 trusts either withheld the self-assessments using various FOI exemptions or did not respond to its request.

A department of health and social care spokeswoman defended the advice, saying: “Leaving the EU with a deal is the government's top priority, but as a responsible department it is right we are prepared for every eventuality.

“The self-assessment of the supply chain is a vital part of this work. In order to secure high quality information, it was important commercially sensitive information from suppliers was treated in confidence.”

The spokeswoman also downplayed the danger from a crash-out Brexit, adding: “We have robust contingency plans in place and we are confident that, if everyone does what they need to do, there should be no impact on patients in the event of exiting the EU without a deal.”

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