NHS leaders urge UK government to extend Brexit transition period

Piece in form of UK borders torn out from the flag of the European Union. United Kingdom withdrawal from the European Union. Brexit concept

NHS leaders have written to the UK prime minister urging him to extend the Brexit transition period by a month to avoid plunging the healthcare service into chaos on 1 January.

The letter, published today by the NHS Confederation - a membership organisation representing NHS leaders from all parts of the health service, outlines concerns about the impact a no-deal outcome will have on delivering care to patients amid winter pressures and a rapid rise in COVID-19 infections.

"The failure to secure a Brexit deal will throw the NHS into further chaos and it will risk the health of patients and the working conditions of our staff," wrote NHS Confederation chief executive Danny Mortimer. "The NHS might not be perceived to be on the Brexit negotiating table, but the disruption shockwaves from a no-deal outcome could push the NHS’ ability to function over the edge."

The south east of England is expecting the worst impact, as ambulances and clinicians trying to reach patients face delays due to major congestion on the roads of Kent.

Mortimer added: "They will face these barriers to their critical work while facing some of the highest levels of COVID-19 infections and the additional risks that the increased traffic, lorry parks and congestion could increase the demand for NHS services in the South East. The South East will face disruption even if a deal is reached. Should a deal not be reached, the magnitude and extent of disruption will be of a much greater order."

Other areas of concern for the NHS Confederation include medical supply shortages, lack of clarity on rules and reimbursement arrangements for EU citizens requiring treatment in the UK and the loss of participation in EU-wide data-sharing platforms to exchange information about health threats and the testing of new treatments.

Uncertain future

Meanwhile, new research from the Nuffield Trust and academics from the Universities of Oxford, Sheffield and Michigan warns of a “perilously uncertain” future facing the UK health sector at the end of the Brexit transition period.

Their study examined nine areas of possible impact: health systems delivery, health systems workforce, medical supplies, health systems financing, leadership and governance, communicable diseases, non-communicable diseases, public health capacity and governance.

It highlights how a combination of migration barriers, an unknown level of disruption to medicines and devices, a prolonged economic slowdown, and barriers to investment in science will impact the health sector almost "immediately and into the future".

Mark Dayan, Brexit programme lead at the Nuffield Trust, said there were many serious questions that needed answering over the future of the sector beyond the UK's exit from the European Union.

“There are a particular set of fairly immediate issues which should be in sharp focus – from the double whammy of COVID-19 and Brexit-related workforce shortages and economic fallout to the very real danger of supply chains of medicines and medical devices being disrupted.

“But it doesn’t end there. There are some deeply concerning and unresolved issues that may affect health in the UK over many years to come and potentially risk the health of the UK population.”