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Will Brexit damage the NHS?

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A number of prominent individuals have recently claimed that Brexit could hurt the NHS. Its chief executive, Simon Stevens, recently said that Brexit could be ‘very dangerous’ for the NHS.[1] According to him, the possible economic downturn after Brexit could hurt future NHS funding. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, has echoed this sentiment: ‘those who want to leave need to explain how they could protect the NHS from this economic shock.’[2] The argument has been repeated by two former chief executives of the NHS[3] and the Remain campaign.[4]

Yet on closer inspection the claim isn’t as concrete as it sounds.

Firstly, whilst the majority of economic and financial institutions agree that Brexit is likely to cause a short-term economic downturn, none have mentioned a specific threat to the NHS.[5] Spending on the NHS is a government choice and its funding has been ring-fenced in the past, for example during the coalition government. This means that any economic shock won’t necessarily be reflected in NHS financing.

There is another problem: economic forecasts can be wrong. For example, in the late 1990s and early 2000s many economic experts and financial institutions were in favour of Britain joining the euro. A position they wouldn’t take today. The unpredictability of the economy makes post-Brexit economic analysis highly fallible. This is mirrored in the results. The Treasury report paints a damning picture of a post-Brexit economy, whereas PwC’s is more marginal.[6] Open Europe even argued that the economic effect could be beneficial or negative. It depends entirely on government decisions after Brexit.[7] The perceived threat to NHS funding is based on these disparate reports.

It’s also worth noting that Simon Stevens and Jeremy Hunt don’t acknowledge the economic risks of being an EU member. Being so closely tied to the eurozone, for example via high levels of trade, carries risks if the euro fails in the future. Following Mr Steven’s logic of ‘when the economy sneezes the NHS catches a cold’, this could also hurt the NHS.

  •  Christian Stensrud – EU Research Fellow

 


Notes 

[1] A video of Simon Stevens’ argument is available on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36353145

[2] J. Hunt, ‘A strong NHS needs a strong economy – we should not put that at risk with Brexit’, The Guardian, 26 March 2016, Available from:  http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/26/jeremy-hunt-brexit-nhs

[3] N. Crisp and D. Nicholson, ‘For the health of the NHS, we prescribe a vote to stay in Europe’, The Times, 22 May 2016, Available from: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/for-the-health-of-the-nhs-we-prescribe-a-vote-to-stay-in-europe-shs3dwzsb

[4] E. Reynolds, ‘Leaving the EU would damage or NHS’, Britain Stronger in Europe, 29 March 2016, Available from: http://bit.ly/25jt75A

[5] C. Giles, ‘Reality check: the FT dissects pro and anti-Brexit claims’, Financial Times, 11 April 2016, Available from: http://bit.ly/244AlVa The argument is made in point 1 under ‘The Remain Campaign’.

[6] The Treasury report is available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/517415/treasury_analysis_economic_impact_of_eu_membership_web.pdf

PwC’s report is available from: http://www.pwc.co.uk/services/economics-policy/insights/implications-of-an-eu-exit-for-the-uk-economy.html

[7] Open Europe’s report is available from: http://openeurope.org.uk/intelligence/britain-and-the-eu/what-if-there-were-a-brexit/