Medical professionals are noted for being naturally cautious and adverse to issuing absolutes, evidenced by many being reluctant to give terminally ill patients even an approximate figure on the amount of time they might have left.
The adoption of a firm and emphatic approach free of caveats by any group of doctors is therefore a notable event.
A debate at the ARM in Brighton, around the issue of the UK’s forthcoming exit from the EU, proved to be one of those occasions.
In just under nine months’ time, the UK will formally cease to be a member of the EU.
The Brexit negotiation process appears to offer few, if any, clear certainties on the most fundamental issues likely to affect the health service, medical research and the future rights of individuals.
It was for these reasons that the ARM saw doctors voting decisively and overwhelmingly; calling on the BMA to back the UK remaining part of the European single market, to support calls for a public vote on the final Brexit deal, and to oppose the UK’s exit from the EU as a whole.
‘The fact is, the Government is woefully underprepared to ensure the UK’s health and well-being is secured in time for the self-imposed deadline of 29 March 2019,’ concluded Yorkshire core medical trainee Will Sapwell.
‘What are the chances that these deals can be struck on the multitude of vital health matters documented in the [BMA] briefings in less than a year? Slim. Zero. Nada.’
Healthcare a sideshow
It was commonly held that the level and quality of debate, nationally, in the run-up to the vote in June 2016, was often lacking, and this was perhaps no less true with regards to healthcare and the NHS.
Indeed, for most people, the prevailing memory of the Brexit debate’s focus on health was the image of a red bus bearing the vague and ambitious promise of an additional £350m a week to the NHS, in the event the UK voted to leave the EU.
Unfortunately, it is only since the outcome of the vote the simplistic talking points put forward by certain campaigners have been replaced by hard analysis, with the effects of Brexit crystallising as each day leading to the March 2019 deadline is one by one ticked off.
Since the 2016 vote, the association has lobbied and provided comprehensive analysis and opinion about the ramifications Brexit could have across a spectrum of issues affecting healthcare.
Leaving the EU may in many instances also mean leaving the regulatory bodies that determine issues of vital importance to healthcare.
These include the European Clinical Trials Directive, which facilitates the UK’s ability to participate in EU research and obtain EU funds, the Euratom treaty, which assures the UK consistent and timely access to radioisotopes, as well as EU legislation guaranteeing mutual recognition of professional qualifications and freedom of movement.
With the future of these arrangements still up in the air, many members of the medical profession have seen their patience exhausted.
In the meantime, uncertainty has already had tangible effects. Since the 2016 vote, the numbers of EU doctors working in the NHS expressing an intention to leave the UK has increased, while the number of new applicants to the health service from EEA (European Economic Area) nations has gone down.
‘Brexit is a disastrous act of national self-harm. We know that, indeed most MPs know it too,’ warned BMA medical ethics committee chair John Chisholm. ‘I cannot think of a single way in which being outside of the EU will be to the advantage to the UK.
‘It is a major threat to the NHS and to the health of our patients [and] we need to speak out about the damage Brexit will do to our patients and to healthcare professionals.’
In adopting a new position on Brexit, there were words of caution on offer.
Despite personally opposing Brexit, BMA consultants committee chair Rob Harwood warned that by taking a hard-edge approach, the BMA risked polarising its position, ‘isolating ourselves from the debate and losing our ability to influence those parties, and we do need to influence them in the best interests of our country and our nation’s health’.
For the majority, however, the time for caution and a kid-glove approach to Brexit was well and truly over.
‘It is time for us to proclaim what these briefings truly show: Brexit is bad for Britain’s health.’ declared Dr Sapwell. ‘Our reputation is exactly why we should vote for this motion. We should use it for the good of the nation’s health.’