NHS bosses ordered to 'stick to script' that no-deal Brexit must happen on 31 October if necessary

Ministers accused of ‘gagging order’ as health chiefs told all communications must be ‘aligned’ with No 10’s ‘top lines’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 21 August 2019 17:37 BST
Countdown to Brexit: How many days left until Britain leaves the EU?

NHS chiefs have been ordered to repeat Boris Johnson’s claim that a no-deal Brexit must be carried out in October if necessary, in a controversial government memo.

All communications sent by NHS England and other agencies must be “aligned to this script” and Downing Street’s weekly “top lines”, it says.

The briefing sets out the prime minister’s insistence that “we will have to leave with no deal” if the EU continues to refuse to make concessions on the divorce deal he has rejected.

It also repeats the discredited claim that the UK will “have the extra lubrication” of the divorce bill, normally put at £39bn, although around half its debts from EU membership would still have to be paid.

The crackdown follows the controversy when the NHS Blood and Transplant Authority cancelled blood donor sessions in Kent because it feared traffic chaos had the UK crashed out of the EU last March.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) insisted the memo was simply a “well-established” process to ensure “clear external messaging” by the agencies, known as arms-length bodies (ALBs).

But Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s shadow health secretary, accused ministers of imposing a “gagging order” on NHS managers.

“It’s staggering that ministers are attempting to silence NHS staff from telling the truth about the disastrous consequences for patients’ health of a no-deal Brexit,” he said.

The memo, revealed by the Health Service Journal, follows the row over a new promotional video, put out by the prime minister, that opponents said may breach strict civil service impartiality rules.

Sent by the DHSC’s senior external affairs manager, it said all communications must be in step with the UK leaving the EU on 31 October “whatever the circumstances”.

It continued: “If it is not possible to reach a deal, we will have to leave with no deal. We will make all necessary preparations to do so. All necessary funding will be made available.

“In these circumstances, we will of course have the extra lubrication of the money committed to in the withdrawal agreement.”

The briefing also echoed Mr Johnson’s description of the Irish backstop as “anti-democratic” and said the 3 million-plus EU citizens in the UK have “the absolute legal certainty of the right to live and remain”.

However, the government now plans to end free movement of EU citizens on 31 October, if there is a no-deal – prompting warnings that EU residents in the UK face “another Windrush”.

A DHSC spokesperson said: “We are committed to preparing the entire health and care system for Brexit on 31 October and that includes ensuring our ALBs have the latest and most accurate information from central government when communicating with the public.

“Government departments routinely clear external messaging of their ALBs and this is part of well-established assurance processes.”

Other arms-length bodies include the Care Quality Commission, NHS Improvement, Public Health England and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

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