Disruption to UK medicine and equipment supplies caused by a no-deal Brexit is likely to impede the NHS’ ability to combat a second wave of Covid-19, a health think tank has warned.
In its report on how Brexit is likely to affect the Covid response, the Nuffield Trust said that leaving the single market without a deal would cause ‘maximum disruption’ at customs.
A breakdown in the political relationship might also threaten efforts to keep trade flowing, and the UK being exempt from any export blocks on items such as masks and gowns from the European Union (EU), it added.
Reaching a Brexit deal would ‘improve this situation’, but leaving the single market is still likely to negatively impact the UK’s Covid-19 response, the Nuffield Trust said.
It will create a ‘variable but extensive burden of extra paperwork and requirements’, which must be satisfied to get medicines and medical devices into the UK, the report said.
It added that stockpiling measures and planned delays in introducing controls could help to ease the problem, but warned medicine shortages have already increased since the referendum.
‘Much of the impact of leaving the single market will be felt immediately with several important areas for responding to the pandemic depending on a negotiated outcome between the UK and EU,’ it said.
The Nuffield Trust also expressed concern that most of the crucial Brexit-related issues for health services – which could have been secured in an agreement – have still not been resolved.
The report warned that leaving the single market will also have ‘immediate’ implications for other areas of healthcare, such as on the workforce and the finances available to be spent on services.
It said that the Government’s new points-based immigration system will be ‘relatively permissive’ for most graduate healthcare workers but, unlike free movement of labour, it is likely to require considerable paperwork and fees stretching into thousands of pounds, which could be a deterrent.
The post-Brexit system will have a ‘more pronounced’ impact on social care, as it would ‘entirely rule out migration’ in this area, the report said.
A recent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report also found that pressures in the social care sector are set to increase after the new immigration rules come into force, and called for senior care workers to be added to the shortage occupation list.
The Nuffield Trust said: ‘Poor funding for public health and social care contributed to limitations in the UK’s capacity to address coronavirus during the first wave. Leaving the single market will mean slower growth, making addressing these more difficult though the case to do so remains very strong.’
Mark Dayan, Nuffield Trust policy analyst and Brexit programme lead, said: ‘A resurgent second wave of the pandemic is at the forefront of people’s minds but the NHS’s ability to cope with this extreme demand will be impacted by the decisions taken now in negotiating chambers in London and Brussels.
‘It is not yet clear whether any agreement about the UK’s future relationship with the EU after the end of the transition period has the safeguards needed for health and social care services to access the supplies, workforce and data sharing they need to combat the pandemic. Addressing these concerns will often fall on goodwill and cooperation between the two sides.’
He added: ‘Unfortunately, despite all that has happened this year, negotiators on both sides have not been putting health first. As negotiations enter the crucial final stage we need to see greater prioritisation of health care issues to avoid damaging the NHS and care services and undermining the response to Covid-19.’
It comes as the BMA and other health unions wrote to the Government last week to demand free automatic international health worker visa extensions continue until the end of the pandemic.