Brexit could be devastating for patients and public health. That’s largely because harmonised EU regulations have had one overwhelming benefit: they guarantee a high level of safety.
It’s critical that negotiators tread very carefully as any changes to the current regulatory regime could have a significant impact on the supply of medicines and medical technologies – both for patients in the UK and in the EU27.
In the case of a ‘no deal’ scenario, or if we fail to reach an adequate deal, it’s very possible that patients will experience delays in receiving certain medicines and technologies. Some of these drugs and devices may even become unavailable.
According to the Brexit Health Alliance, each year 37 million patient packs travel from the EU into the UK. Some of these are accident and emergency trauma packs. These are flown in from the EU to the UK within hours of an order being placed, and are particularly necessary during unexpected large-scale emergencies, such as terrorist attacks. The drugs contained within these packs have a relatively short shelf life, which means it’s not possible to stockpile in advance. It’s thought that Brexit customs checks could result, in one of the best-case scenarios, in a delay of five hours in the supplies being received. This time is critical in life and death situations.
The UK is also likely to face problems relating to medicine licensing. There are currently 978 medicines on the UK market that have received marketing authorisation via a centralised EU procedure since 1995. Each of these would need to have its license reviewed if we fail to agree on a system of mutual recognition – a costly and time consuming task.
The Government has already made the decision to leave the European nuclear safety treaty, EURATOM, seemingly without any real impact assessment. Exiting this Treaty presents a real threat to the uninterrupted, cross-border supply of the medical isotopes that at estimated one million cancer patients in the UK rely on every year.
I have written to the Government, with my colleague Keith Taylor MEP, urging ministers to reassess the decision to leave EURATOM or, at the very least, urgently commit to having as close as possible a relationship with it post-Brexit. You can read the letter in full here.
The UK is also involved in many health research projects with other EU partners. Six of the 24 European Reference Networks (ERNs) which develop and pull together research and best practice in rare diseases are led by UK health authorities: these cover such conditions as epilepsies and liver diseases. It is unclear what role the UK will play in these in future.
There are also implications for the health workforce. Latest figures show that 56 out every 1,000 people working in the NHS come from the EU27, with a particular concentration in London. We are now seeing an increase in nurses from the EU27 leaving the NHS and a slow-down in recruitment from those countries. There are also an estimated 90,000 people from the rest of the EU working in social care in the UK: it is not clear how many will stay here.
I, and my fellow Greens, will continue to demand that the Government takes a ‘patients first’ approach to negotiations. We are calling for concrete guarantees that Brexit will not have a negative impact on patients and put lives at risk.