Jeane Freeman: The spectre of Brexit is already damaging our health service
The Scottish government is doing what it can to protect our health service from the threats posed by Brexit. But a no deal could cause real damage, writes Jeane Freeman
The damaging uncertainty surrounding Brexit is causing widespread anxiety across all public services. This is especially true of health and social care.
The UK’s exit from the European Union threatens to have a serious impact in a range of crucial areas, including workforce, medicine availability and research.
EU nationals make an invaluable contribution to health and social care. They are dedicated and highly regarded. Any restriction on their free movement would have serious consequences for Scotland’s health and social care workforce.
In fact, there is evidence that the spectre of Brexit is already causing damage. For example, a British Medical Association survey last year found that almost one in five EU doctors working in the UK had started making plans to leave since the Brexit result in June 2016.
This April, the Nursing and Midwifery Council reported that nurses and midwives joining the UK register has fallen by 87% in the past year.
And there are the nearly 10,000 adult social care and childcare workers in Scotland from EU nations who told Ipsos Mori this year they want to stay here but don’t know what will happen to them.
In September I wrote to all EU staff working in the NHS, thanking them for their contribution and reassuring them that we will do all we can to protect their rights. But words are not enough: that is why the Scottish Government has committed to seek to meet the fee for settled status applications for EU citizens working in the devolved public sector in Scotland.
The Scottish Government also strongly supports the maintenance of the EEA-wide system that automatically recognises the harmonised qualifications of certain healthcare professions. This, along with freedom of movement, is crucial to us recruiting doctors, dentists, midwives, nurses, pharmacists and other skilled professionals.
The workforce issue is serious, but it is not the only threat posed by Brexit.
The potential loss of UK participation in the European Medicines Agency could result in patients in Scotland having slower or reduced access to new medicines. This combined with the impact on research.
We rely on the free movement of medical researchers between Scotland and other UK countries, and our universities must be able to attract talented medical students from the continent.
Scotland, the UK and our EU partners all benefit from EU research funding programmes and the collaboration which happens across the sector. Brexit could cause us to be excluded from these networks. Combined with a loss of EU research funding, this could seriously reduce the competitiveness of our medical research industry.
And then there is the impact on our citizens. All UK citizens currently enjoy the benefit of reciprocal healthcare, meaning they can receive free healthcare anywhere in the EU, planned treatments to take place elsewhere in the European Economic Area, and state pensioners can receive healthcare in other EEA countries.
The Scottish Government will continue to press the UK Government to ensure our citizens retain these rights.
As a responsible government we are preparing for all possibilities, and that’s why we have been working closely with Scotland’s NHS boards over the past few months.
But there are things that cannot be prepared for, including the consequences of a no-deal Brexit.
My clear preference is that the UK remains in the European Union. After all, that is how Scotland voted.
But if the UK has to leave, we should remain within the single market and the customs union. That is by far the best outcome for our country, our economy, our National Health Service and our people.
Jeane Freeman is Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport