It’s World Health Day. This annual event, organised by the United Nations World Health Organisation, is designed to shine the spotlight on health-related issues. And healthcare has been in the spotlight in recent days here in the UK too — this time linked to our ongoing debate about EU membership.
I suppose, as one of our most beloved institutions, it was only a matter of time before the NHS got dragged into the Europe debate. It started with controversy a few weeks ago, when it emerged that Vote Leave (one of several Out campaign groups fighting for official recognition by the Electoral Commission) used the NHS logo on their propaganda without permission. They were told in no uncertain terms to remove it.
Since then, there’s been a lot of to-and-fro about how the NHS might be affected if Britain were to leave the EU. It started with anti-EU campaigners claiming that we could save £55 million a day by quitting the EU, and implying that we could plough all that into our health service.
This suggestion is riddled with obvious problems.
- First, the £55 million figure is a lie – the reality is less than half.
- Second, we’d still have to contribute to the EU budget if we were outside the EU, assuming we wanted continued access to the single market, as Vote Leave say they do. (That’s Norway’s situation.)
- Third, those supposed “savings” have already been spent many, many times over in the fevered imaginations of anti-EU campaigners. In reality, any cash windfall following an EU exit would evaporate rapidly as we would suddenly be faced with the pressing need to stump up our own money for the many vital areas of activity that we currently fund jointly with our neighbours. Anyone who thinks Britain would be transformed into a land flowing with milk and honey through pulling out of the European Union is labouring under a dangerous delusion.
And, of course, there’s a wider issue – one pointed out by some 200 healthcare professionals who wrote to The Times earlier this week (£). The NHS is as vulnerable as any other industry, public or private, to the economic shock that experts predict if we were to walk out of the EU. Brexit, they say, “should come with a health warning”:
Leaving the EU will not provide a financial windfall for the NHS. The UK’s contribution to the EU budget is part of an agreement allowing access to the single market. If we pulled out, adverse economic consequences far larger than any nominal savings are widely anticipated. This jeopardises an already cash-strapped NHS.
So much for the claim that leaving the EU would help the NHS. What about the benefits of staying?
Broadly, how we organise our health service, and how we pay for it, is a matter for our own government – not something we decide jointly with our EU neighbours. Nonetheless, the health of British citizens benefits from being part of the EU in three key ways.
- In terms of staffing, with tens of thousands of nursing and doctor posts vacant, we cannot afford to risk losing the nurses and doctors from other EU countries that work here.
- Participation in EU research schemes allows collaboration that is fundamental for research. For example, in the case of rare cancers, it’s often necessary to recruit patients from multiple countries in order to conduct trials with enough participants. It also means value for money: joint research avoids duplication and gains economies of scale. Spending through our shared budget at EU level saves money at national level. British universities receive the biggest share of EU research funding, sharing in 15% of all projects under the £57bn Horizon 2020 programme.
- A mutual agreement between EU countries means that British citizens are entitled to emergency medical treatment when travelling in Europe. If Britain were to leave the EU, UK nationals would no longer be entitled to free emergency healthcare abroad, leaving travellers and holidaymakers £773m a year worse off. Britain Stronger in Europe calculates that the average British citizen claiming abroad received £6200 worth of healthcare under this agreement. Leave campaigners who want to scrap it would saddle travellers with enormous medical bills.