By Professor Azeem Majeed, Head of the Department of Primary Care and Public Health, Imperial College London
The departure of the UK from the European Union (EU) will have wide-ranging consequences for public health. The UK first became a member of the EU in 1973 and as a member of the EU for over 40 years, the UK has played a full part in European-wide public health initiatives. These have covered many areas, including food regulations, road safety, air pollution, tobacco control and chemical hazards.
Cross-national approaches to public health are essential when dealing with issues that do not stop at a country’s borders (eg. air pollution) and when dealing with large, multi-national corporations over which any single country will have only limited influence. Although EU public health initiatives have had important positive effects on health in the UK, there will be strong resistance from pro-Brexit politicians in participating in future programmes, as they generally view them as unnecessary interference in the UK’s internal affairs. The UK will also find that it is no longer able to lead such programmes or have much influence over their content, which will inevitably damage the leading role that the UK has played in public health globally.
The NHS will also find itself facing major challenges because of Brexit. With over one million employees and an annual spend of over £100 billion, the NHS is England’s largest employer. For many decades, the NHS has faced shortages in its clinical workforce and has relied heavily on overseas trained doctors, nurses and other health professionals to fill these gaps. This reliance on overseas-trained staff will not end in the foreseeable future. For example, although the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, has announced that the government will support the creation of an additional 1,500 medical student places in England’s medical schools, it will be more than 10 years before the first of these extra medical students complete their medical courses and their subsequent post-graduate medical training.
The recruitment of overseas-trained health professionals has been facilitated by EU-legislation on the mutual recognition of the training of health professionals. This means that health professionals trained in one EU country can work in another EU country without undergoing a period of additional training. For example a cardiologist or general practitioner trained in Germany would be eligible to take up a post in the NHS. Moving forward, it’s unclear that this cross-EU recognition of clinical training will continue. As inward migration to the UK looks to be the most politically contentious area in our post-Brexit future, we will need to take urgent action to ensure that the NHS has sufficient professional staff to provide health and social care for our increasingly ageing population.
The UK’s government will also have to address the issue of access to healthcare, both for EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living overseas in countries such as Spain. Currently, all these individuals are entitled to either free or low-cost healthcare. It’s unclear what will happen in the future, and this is particularly important for the UK nationals living overseas, many of whom are elderly and who will have a high level of need for healthcare. As the NHS has never been very effective in reclaiming the fees owed to it by overseas visitors to the UK, the UK may find itself substantially worse off financially when new arrangements for funding cross-national use of health services are put in place.
In conclusion, Brexit will have important impacts on public health and health services, with scope for wide-ranging adverse consequences for health in the UK. It’s therefore essential that public health professionals engage with government to ameliorate these risks and also gain public support in areas such as the benefits of participation in EU-wide public health programmes and the continued recruitment of health professionals from the EU.