An influential group of MPs has written to the government calling for clarity on the transitional period after Brexit, warning that NHS services may be put at risk without sufficient planning.
The chair of the Commons’ health select committee has written to health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt to stress the urgent need for clarity on the transitional period after Brexit.
“It would be unwelcome for life science businesses and the NHS to transition twice”
In the letter to Mr Hunt, Dr Sarah Wollaston stressed the need for clarity on details for the period after “UK Exit day” and on government contingency planning to protect patients and NHS services.
The letter follows last week’s warning from other MPs that uncertainty over the government’s Brexit immigration plans was creating “anxiety” among the UK’s European Union workers.
According to a damning new report by the Commons’ home affairs select committee, the uncertainty was also preventing proper workforce planning by the NHS and other public services.
In particular, the cross-party group slammed prime minister Theresa May’s decision to delay the Immigration White Paper, which was due last summer but has been put back until next autumn.
The new letter from Dr Wollaston warned that both healthcare and life science businesses, and also NHS services, needed certainty on the transition arrangements “as soon as possible”.
Patient care, both in the UK and Europe, was “at risk of being compromised in the event of a disorderly Brexit”, said the Conservative MP for Totnes.
She highlighted that, with only 13 months until the UK exits the EU on 29 March 2019, services and businesses, including those manufacturing and distributing medicines, “remain in the dark”.
“Continued uncertainty will compromise the ability of the NHS to provide seamless care to patients”
Regarding the role of the European Medicines Agency, she warned that a “disorderly UK exit could result in an immediate impact on the supply of essential medicines and medical products”.
The UK government should seek to agree an implementation period during which the current regulatory “status quo” was maintained, she stated.
In addition, Dr Wollaston noted that her committee had recently undertaken an inquiry into the impact of leaving the EU on the UK’s life science industry.
“We have heard compelling evidence from industry, patient groups and health professionals setting out the need for certainty,” she said in the letter to Mr Hunt.
She noted that health and life science businesses had told the MPs they were having to prepare for a “worst-case scenario”, because time was running out for a transition plan to be announced.
If there was a further delay, more businesses would be forced to invest money in contingency plans at the expense of this funding going towards advancing patient care, she said.
“This is an unnecessary cost and distraction, which should be avoided,” she said. “It would be unwelcome for life science businesses and the NHS to transition twice.”
Meanwhile, she added that allowing public scrutiny of contingency planning by revealing the details would strengthen, rather than weaken, the government’s position and manage risks to patient care.
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Clarity to guarantee patient safety and continued health supplies would strengthen the UK’s negotiating position by “demonstrating that we have a credible fall-back position”, said Dr Wollaston.
In response, the head of the Royal College of Nursing said: “Days after one cross-party committee demanded greater clarity, a second group says the delays and disorder put NHS patient care at risk.
“Continued uncertainty will compromise the ability of the NHS to provide seamless care to patients, said RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies.
“With just over a year to go, ministers still cannot explain our part in the European system for supplying and regulating medicines and medical products after Brexit or during transition,” she said.
“There is worryingly little clarity on the future of vital health research collaboration with the EU too,” noted Ms Davies in relation to the life science sector.
“We must avoid sleepwalking into ‘no deal’ without any planning for the impact on healthcare,” she warned.
Ms Davies also reiterated concerns that the number of nurses coming from EU countries had “plummeted” in the last 18 months.
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Under the government’s existing Brexit proposals, it should be implementing a scheme that allows EU NHS staff already in the UK to remain after Brexit if they want to.
But there is currently no detail on the registration process for this and neither is there clarity on how those arriving during the transition period or once the UK has fully left the EU will be processed.
Ms Davies added: “In some hospitals, one in five NHS workers has an EU passport – if there is a Brexit cliff-edge in migration, it will be the NHS going over it.
“The government must be louder and clearer in reassuring the tens of thousands of EU nurses and paid carers already working across the UK – not just on their right to stay but how desperately the NHS and social care system needs them,” she said.