Brexit has not happened yet but already it is doing deep damage to the NHS and the wider health and social care system.
Nurse numbers are falling as hard-working EU citizens take the barely hidden hints from the Prime Minister and others that their presence in a post-Brexit Britain might just about be tolerable but will be far from welcome.
Telling people who think of themselves as “citizens of the world” that they are really “citizens of nowhere” might be a strong clap line at a Conservative Party conference but the message it sends – that the open, tolerant and globally orientated Britain of the past is shutting up shop – has proved to have serious consequences.
The current winter crisis has highlighted the staff shortages in our hospitals but the damage doesn’t end there.
Thanks to the collapse in the pound’s value after the Brexit referendum, the health service’s bills for procurement of drugs and equipment ratcheted up. The slight recovery in the pound’s value since then doesn’t make up for the lost months and, in any case, comes nowhere near making up for the post-referendum slump.
On top of all of that, our pharmaceutical companies are already having to divert money that could have been spent on research into new treatments into preparing for Brexit.
One of the very first broken promises of the Brexiteers was their claim that we could keep our membership of the European Medicines Agency and ensure its headquarters remained in London. The HQ and the jobs it sustains are now on the way to Amsterdam and it is almost certain that our membership of the agency itself will follow if we continue down Theresa May’s path towards a hard Brexit outside the single market and customs union.
If that happens, then the UK will slip from being part of one of the world’s biggest marketplaces for new health treatments – and therefore a priority for drug companies when it comes to getting early approval on marketing and sales – to being just another medium-sized country and with a government desperate to save whatever it can from an over-squeezed health budget.
Yet even that is not the worst we can expect from Brexit’s effects on the NHS. That will come in the form of the orange peril, Donald Trump, and what he will demand as the price for any trade deal Theresa May or her successor signs.
We know that Trump has no time for any system of shared healthcare. His promise to repeal and replace “Obamacare” with something better was quickly ditched in favour of slashing federal health spending to help finance tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
Pleading with him to accept limited access for US healthcare giants to the UK is going to be a non-starter. He will surely insist they get every chance to get stuck into buying up parts of our health service.
A more fundamental threat to the integrity of our NHS is likely to be an American demand that caps on pharmaceutical prices are lifted and that big pharma be allowed to market directly to citizens, routing around the GP gateway and helping to create a health economy that generates big profits for a few but an over-medicalised and actually increasingly unhealthy society for the rest of us.
In a world where the Government has turned its back on membership of the world’s biggest and most economically powerful single market, ministers will have little choice but to accept the terms the Trump administration dictate.
These are just some of the reasons why so many of us on the left and centre of politics have come together to warn of the threat Brexit poses to the NHS and to state that we must maintain the right to keep the option of rejecting any final Brexit deal if it threatens the integrity and future security of our NHS.
Ben Bradshaw has been Labour MP for Exeter since 1997 and is a supporter of Open Britain
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