Uncertainty over Brexit risks delays in access to lifesaving treatment

Labour Party

The Shadow Secretary for Health, Jonathan Ashworth, visited Brussels yesterday and told the Socialist and Democrat Group that it is utterly unacceptable for there to be any uncertainty about access to medicines and other related arrangements after Brexit.

He reiterated throughout the speech that Labour would seek to continue to be part of European Medicines Agency and reciprocal health care schemes after Brexit. He also said that a Labour Government would ensure that medical staff and those who work in the care sector would be able to continue to come to the UK to work post Brexit.

But in terms to accessing life saving treatment it is an absolute red line (for Labour) to ensure there are no delays. This shouldn’t in many ways be an ambitious goal, it is something that should be an absolute priority for all sides. But, to be clear, without a firm agreement in place we risk that very thing-huge delays. The situation in Switzerland provides a good illustration of delays which can occur without any agreements in place. Despite having numerous trade agreements in place Switzerland has nothing covering gaining access to medicines and as a result its access to new medicines on average arrive 157 days later than the rest of the EU.

“Disease has no borders,” he told the group referring to how crucial it is to cooperate in this area. He also explained that it would be irresponsible to dismiss the medical benefits which have built up over the course of our relationship with Europe. To dismiss this would be a “great folly”, he said.

He is right, not only does any ambiguity or lack of cooperation in this area mean delays in accessing potentially lifesaving treatments but what a waste to not continue to share information and to continue the relationship in any way possible in such an important area.

In relation to the NHS workforce, Labour he said, would guarantee European workers’ rights ensuring the NHS and care sector were still able to recruit staff post Brexit. Official figures provide clear evidence of how reliant we are on those who come here to work from the EU. For example, some 167,500 European nationals work across the health and care sectors with 90,000 in adult social care and 60,000 in the NHS itself. Furthermore, estimates show between 7-10% of doctors currently working in the UK are from the EEA and some 21,000 nurses are from the EU.

In September NHS figures revealed that 10,000 employees including nurses and doctors had quit. It’s not a surprise that so many health care workers are choosing to terminate their employment in the UK- their future here is for now uncertain.

This environment of uncertainty does not help the NHS to function, and this has been echoed by the Royal College of Nursing who noted that “lack of certainty is undoubtedly a key reason that EU nurses are no longer choosing to work in the UK, which is already putting pressure on staff and services.”

Our relationship with Europe in respect to medicine, access to medicine and health and care work is crucial to continue to be able to deliver a first-class NHS. Uncertainty simply put jeopardises this.