On Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal was defeated in Parliament by an overwhelming majority, with MPs rejecting the plan by a resounding 432 votes to 202.
As talks continue, and with a general election, a second referendum and a no-deal Brexit all being options that are seemingly on the table, we spoke to key players in the healthcare sector to gauge their opinion on the current situation and what it means for health and social care.
So, how is the sector reacting to the latest dramatic developments on the Brexit front?
‘Chaos in Westminster’
Leaders from the BMA and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) have both backed a second vote on whether Britain should leave the EU.
BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘The BMA has been clear about the danger Brexit poses to the NHS, its workforce, patients and the nation’s health.
‘Leaving the EU will result in poorer care for patients, reduced availability of drugs and medical supplies, and a diminished workforce.
‘Given the chaos consuming Westminster – with less than 75 days to go before we’re due to leave the EU – we believe it is crucial, now more than ever, that we have a second referendum on a final outcome for Brexit.’
Meanwhile, Dame Donna Kinnair, acting chief executive of the RCN, said members had in June 2018 voted to lobby for a referendum on the final Brexit deal.
Ms Kinnair called for the ‘urgent extension’ of Article 50 beyond 29 March to allow time for a People’s Vote.
‘Implications for staffing’
NHS Confederation chief executive Niall Dickson highlighted the importance of ensuring patient safety is not put as risk.
Mr Dickson said: ‘Patients must not suffer as a result of the Brexit process. Even if there is no deal we cannot have no agreement about how to protect patients in the UK and across Europe.
‘This is an unprecedented situation for the health service. Of course, the NHS can adapt to emergencies, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to avoid them.
‘No deal and no arrangements to protect patients is simply not acceptable and could put lives at risk.’
NHS Providers director of policy and strategy Miriam Deakin drew attention to the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on the health and social care sector’s ability to recruit from the European Union.
She said: ‘A disorderly exit will have implications for staffing across vital health and care roles. The Government must ensure that health and social care services can continue to recruit and retain the workforce they need from Europe and beyond.
‘In the event of a no deal situation […] trusts would need urgent clarity on issues like the UK’s recognition of the professional qualifications of European staff.’
Ms Deakin also said that ‘trusts and the health and care sector more widely need clarity’ on what the next steps will be in the event that the UK leaves the European Union without a deal.
She commented: ‘Trusts will need to continue their no deal contingency planning, but they are still waiting for the promised further operational guidance on what more they need to do and what further steps the government is undertaking.
There is a real sense of nervousness about how effectively these plans can be put in place before exit day.’
Nuffield Trust policy and public affairs analyst Mark Dayan said that, from a healthcare point of view, part of the problem with Theresa May’s now defeated Brexit deal was that it pointed towards a scenario in which British hospitals and researchers would be cut off from the European medicines and research system.
However, he also warned that a no-deal Brexit would be a ‘nightmare scenario’ for the NHS.
Mr Dayan added: ‘Not only would it threaten medicine supplies and knock a hole in the budget [that] I estimate at £2.3bn, it would also cut people off from reciprocal healthcare schemes. The situation for healthcare in Northern Ireland could also get very difficult.
‘We will be watching closely and hoping MPs can find a destination that is better for the NHS than the current deal – not worse’.