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Brexit could spell disaster for general practice

Dr David Coleman

The EU referendum is almost upon us and for the very first time the Leave vote has edged ahead in opinion polls.

For once I actually agree with Jeremy Hunt on a healthcare-related issue

So is Britain trembling on the precipice of economic and political oblivion, or are we on the cusp of a brave new era in British politics, helmed by the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove? Is Brexit about to be banished to the place where unfashionable portmanteaus go to die, or are we going to be unpicking the mess and hearing this godforsaken word for the rest of our miserable lives? We will find out on 23 June.

But what of the nation’s poor, downtrodden GPs? Could Brexit make things even worse in the world of NHS primary care? It’s a scary thought given the profession’s current woes, but I fear a victory for the Leave campaign could spell disaster for general practice.

Doctors typically value evidence, something there has been precious little of in a referendum debate fuelled by partisan opinion. A primary focus on immigration and the economy was to be expected, but both campaigns have found ample time to kick around that ever-popular political football, the NHS. Frustratingly, the arguments have been about as coherent as an England football fan after a day’s drinking in the French sun.

The Vote Leave campaign’s website proudly boasts that ‘the £350 million we give to the EU every week could pay for a fully staffed NHS hospital’. This is an emotive but hugely over-simplistic statement, designed to mislead. While our contribution to the EU would fall with Brexit, not necessarily to zero, there is a strong likelihood our national income would fall too.

I’m not an economist so don’t take my word for it; the Institute for Fiscal Studies believes ‘the overall effect of Brexit would be to damage the public finances’. Such luminaries as the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and the governor of the Bank of England have also voiced concerns. Goodbye fully staffed hospital, hello further austerity, with all the negative impacts on GP workload that entails.

If Britain’s GDP declines, this will likely have a significant impact on public service spending. What does this mean for healthcare? The Economist Intelligence Unit believes Brexit could hit potential healthcare funding by up to £135 per head by 2020; to put that in perspective, the average GP practice only receives £136 per patient annually. So while the GP Forward View suggests we are set for a bigger slice of the funding pie, Brexit could leave us with even less to chew on.

Still, perhaps we’ll save money if we don’t have to spend millions treating all those immigrants from the EU, right? Well, no actually. This is the healthcare myth that just won’t go away. It’s been debunked so many times, I’m not even sure Nigel Farage believes it anymore. It’s also important to recognise that 10% of doctors working in the NHS were trained in another EU country. They wouldn’t necessarily leave of course, but Brexit would undoubtedly complicate cross-border working at a time when many specialties, general practice included, are in the midst of recruitment crises which show no sign of ending anytime soon.

And let’s not forget employment rights. The EU is far from perfect and clearly needs reform, but it has brought numerous positive benefits to the workplace. Some experts fear the European Working Time Directive, which has played a pivotal role in influencing junior doctor’s working hours, could fall under threat in the event of Brexit. Do any of us want to see a return to pre-1998 arrangements? Ok, any non-surgeons? I thought not.

Experts in their respective fields have claimed that Brexit presents additional threats to research funding, public health initiatives, and even the pharmaceutical industry. Increasingly disparate voices have trumpeted opposing views, but it seems clear that the consensus in the medical and scientific community lies in favour of a Remain vote. The BMJ, Simon Stevens, Sarah Wollaston, and the Royal College of Physicians have joined legions of academics and the leaders of all major political parties (with the obvious exception of UKIP) in opposing Brexit. And as much as it pains me to admit it, for once I actually agree with Jeremy Hunt on a healthcare-related issue: Brexit could have catastrophic consequences for an NHS that is already teetering on the brink.

Dr David Coleman is a GP in Conisbrough, South Yorkshire

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Readers' comments (26)

  • Why is an administrative region of 500m people the best democratic size?
    Why not 1billion? Why not the whole world?

    Is centralisation good in the NHS?
    Are super practices better than smaller practices?

    This is about centralised control. Free market and immigration can occur without handing over power to a central body.

    The laws in Europe apply to more people than were under the British empire at its peak.

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  • More hysterical hyperbole than evidence.

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  • Vinci Ho

    (1) Still think no matter what, it is all about the behaviour of the post referendum government one way or the other. Facts are not really 'real facts' coming out from either camp. Problem with a yes/no referendum is neither camp needs to make any promise(I know what you would say about promises!) to sustain their argument; pure guessing as confessed by Michael Howard yesterday morning on BBC.
    (2) Short period of agony to the economy is inevitable in Brexit but then the market effect will come into play . Nobody knows. Devaluation of the sterling like Black Wednesday in 1992 could write another chapter in history with pros and cons.
    (3) One thing that has happened , however , is the fuelling of far-right ideology(which a government has responsibility to ensure it does not creep into mainstream in critical time like this in history)and hatred by this totally disjointed , chaotic and nonsensical arguments from both camps . And I would say that had claimed the life of a young , energetic and enthusiastic MP yesterday. She was more a person than a politician. The calling off of any activity for the referendum only offered a short period of solace. All these politicians from both camps should seriously sit down and do some soul searching........
    Perhaps , one would say vote with your brain than your heart in normal circumstances , this is NOT a normal circumstances .........

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  • Vinci Ho

    ''MPs are available to the public and that's how Jo died, doing her job. We shouldn't forget that politics is about public service. Most importantly of all we should value and see as precious the democracy that we have in this country."
    David Cameron

    Hope you mean every single word of this ....

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  • Agree evidence slim on both sides as no-one can predict the future, but vote leave if you value democracy, sovereignty, border control and the right of our elected government to decide how best to spend tax receipts, including on health.

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  • Anonymous | GP Partner17 Jun 2016 2:41pm

    I agree it is hard to predict, but your last spiel sounds dangerously like an advert for UKIP.

    the EU is responsible for about 50% of our trade.

    you are either in the single market or you're not.

    If you want to retain the single market, you have to accept EU laws and pay to be part of it - Norway is out of the EU and in the single market, still has to adopt vast majority of EU laws AND pays more per capita than we do towards EU contributions. And interestingly, Norway has to abide to free movement to worker rules too.

    Furthermore you talk about the right of our elected govt to spend money on whatever. Im sorry, but have you seen the elected govt and their attitude towards healthcare? The EU at least provides protection for worker's rights, for junior doctors hours and so on.

    Soverignty is one thing, but shooting yourself in the foot is another.

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  • How does the 50% of trade with the rest of the world work if we don't give sovreignty away?

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  • Vinci Ho

    Labour mayor Mr Khan said: "Jo was the best of politics and she inspired and energised people."
    "Some of the posters unveiled, some of the language used... that's not the best of politics".
    "The way politics is conducted in this country is poisonous - and the British public is decent.''
    "The way we behave is not decent, and where there's hate and poison, we've got to change".
    "I think we should all reflect on the way the campaign(referendum) has been conducted.''

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  • Dr Coleman is just a "Remained" who is trying to use the NHS and Project Fear to rationalise his support for Remain. He has no more credible evidence to offer than the Leave campaign does.

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  • Medicine or politics, you cannot serve both.

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