Lord Crisp: Britain's health sector can thrive after Brexit

Posted On: 
23rd January 2017

With vision and imagination the government could turn the deep problems in our health sector into an opportunity, writes Lord Crisp

"The health sector has an enormous contribution to make in the post-Brexit future," former NHS chief executive Lord Crisp says

I argued against Brexit before the referendum, largely because of the risks to staffing the NHS. That decision is made and the important thing now is to get the best outcome for the UK – and deal with these risks, sooner rather than later.

Put simply the UK’s health and care sector is very reliant on workers from abroad, many from the EU. They need guarantees about their status and the NHS needs to know how it can staff its services for the future. Continuing uncertainty is very damaging.

Defiant NHS chief Simon Stevens rejects Theresa May’s health service funding claim

Jeremy Corbyn: Theresa May is 'in denial’ over NHS crisis

MPs pile pressure on Theresa May over NHS after medics speak out

There are also bigger global issues here. Brexit compounds an already difficult situation. The health sector internationally is growing very rapidly with critical shortages in health professionals and a global job market for their skills. This means there is a risk that UK health professionals will head for greener pastures abroad.

Even without Brexit, however, the UK was going to find it difficult to recruit and retain staff in this increasingly competitive market. There is a danger, too, that the UK will revert to recruiting health workers from some of the poorest countries thereby increasing the ‘brain drain’ from Africa and elsewhere with all its damaging effects.

We need to head off the worst impacts of this global staffing crisis now with a combination of far-sighted policies. The UK needs to train more health workers of all different disciplines. Technology and new practices should be used to treat more people in communities and their homes and take some of the pressure of health workers.

Patients and communities need to be more involved in their own care. Health workers need to have their roles extended so that they can work to the limit of their skills and capabilities. Nurses in particular can do much more, if we let them.

Underlying all this is the need to put more effort into disease prevention and health promotion. Some of this is already happening but not at the scale or pace that is needed. Brexit makes this all more urgent and we need a massive acceleration of action.

Understandably the focus on Brexit is driving many other important matters off the government’s agenda. The prime minister’s recent focus on a shared society is encouraging. However, the deepening problems in health and social care must not be left to get worse.

There is an alternative. With vision and imagination the government could turn the problems in health into a positive, and the costs of investing in health into innovation and opportunity.

The UK is a world leader in health with top-rated universities, around 4,800 UK bio-medical and life sciences companies turning over £55bn, a well-respected health system and overseas aid money contributing to massive improvement in health globally. The health sector has an enormous contribution to make in the post-Brexit future.

What better time could there be to place the bio-medical and life sciences at the heart of the UK’s industrial strategy; enable British universities to train more health workers for the UK and the world; recognise the economic role the NHS plays both as a platform for this research and in producing a healthy workforce that boosts productivity; accelerate the transition to a community and health based health and care system; engage patients and communities; offer our European colleagues working in the NHS the security they so urgently need – and, of course inject pride and confidence as well as funding into our vital NHS and social care services?

Lord Crisp is a Crossbench peer. He was permanent secretary at the Department of Health and NHS chief executive from 2000 to 2006