EU referendum: health academics back campaign to remain

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A group of leading health academics from Imperial College London’s School of Public Health have spoken out in support of remaining in the European Union, arguing that EU membership provides benefits to public health and warn that a vote to leave could have an “immediate negative impact on the health of UK residents”.

The 17-strong group of experts, led by Professor Azeem Majeed, Head of the Department of Primary Care and Public Health have penned an editorial, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, which outlines their views regarding the health and scientific case for remaining in the EU. The group says that a vote to leave the EU would impact on the recruitment of doctors and healthcare workers to the NHS, have a negative effect on medical research and teaching and also jeopardise the world-leading status of top UK universities.

Rope about to break

Economic impact?

But the most resounding effect of cutting ties with the EU, says the group, would be the potential impact on the economy. They cite a Treasury analysis that indicates leaving the EU would result in a tax receipts drop of £36 billion, the fallout of which, they warn, could lead to further “substantial” cuts to health and social care which would have an “immediate negative impact on the health of UK residents”.

Brexit could be “very dangerous” for the NHS

The call echoes similar concerns raised earlier this week by Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England. He expressed concerns that Britain’s exit – dubbed Brexit – could lead to another recession, citing a recent warning issued by the Bank of England’s Mark Carney. The fallout of such an occurrence would be, Stevens warns, “very dangerous” for the health service. He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show: “When the British economy sneezes, the NHS catches a cold”, adding that such an outcome would be “terrible” at a time when the NHS needed extra investment.

Nurse button on hospital bed

Impact of social care cuts

Hefty cuts to social care budgets - already introduced under national austerity measures - have reportedly contributed to the ongoing problem of delayed discharge or ‘bed blocking’, where patients who are fit for discharge remain in hospital due to a shortage of social care facilities for their care to be transferred to. The issue is said to affect around 8,500 patients daily in England, as identified earlier this year in a Department of Health commissioned report, read more about this in our article Lord Carter report on NHS efficiency reveals “inexplicable variation” in costs. Delayed discharge has also been found to have a knock on effect on A&E departments, resulting in prolonged patient waiting times as staff are forced to wait for beds to become available.

Surgical tools

Potential impact to NHS staffing

A vote to leave on June 23, say the group, would also potentially impact on around 50,000 NHS workers – including 9,000 doctors – from the European Economic Area, who “provide a vital contribution to the NHS by plugging the gap left by key shortages in its workforce”. They say that the EU has established standards for the training of health professionals and a vote to leave has the potential to make future recruitment “more difficult”.

“World-leading” research at risk?

The group also describe the UK’s “key role” in cross-national health research, citing the example of a recent study on whole-genome sequences of 560 breast cancers - world-leading research funded by the EU and led from the UK.

Professor Majeed says: "The UK currently engages very heavily with other member states of the European Union and with European institutions over many health-related and scientific issues. A vote to leave the EU would start an extremely complex programme of negotiations, lasting many years and with uncertain outcomes, that would threaten these positive collaborations."

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