Availability of medicines, staff, researchers and academics has been a point of contention regarding Brexit, here Dr Paul-Peter Tak explores Brexit healthcare and what a possible no deal scenario could mean for the UK.
Brexit healthcare worries have been prevalent since the vote in 2016 leading to warnings regarding stockpiling medicine, the potential end of reciprocal healthcare systems and its impact regarding funding.
Health Europa speaks with former GSK’s Chief Immunologist and Sitryx and Levicept board member Dr Paul-Peter Tak about Brexit healthcare worries and about what Brexit outcome would be the most beneficial for the UK’s healthcare system and partnerships between the EU and the UK.
What can you tell us about the impact of Brexit on the science and health sector?
There will be big challenges facing the pharmaceutical sector and there is a huge uncertainty around a potential no deal Brexit. This may have long term effects, as the development of drugs and other products depends heavily on the political and regulatory completions of a country – often requiring planning years in advance, with product development taking up to 15 years.
Prolonged disruptions at the border could be a huge threat to the supplies of drugs both in the UK and the EU, however, this will be a little less risky as both parties understand it is vital to provide medicines to patients who need them. The challenges for the logistics for medicines that need to be refrigerated may pose a challenge if there are any procedures that cause delays.
In particular for the health sector, how will research and development be affected?
Brexit will have an impact of both scientific and academic research – for these it is vital to have an open environment as it is an international affair. Many of the great scientists in the UK are from other countries and more than 10% of employees at some of the UK’s top universities have an EU passport. It is critical that these people are provided long term safety and that they feel at home in the UK whilst also still having access to European funding, the European research agenda and networks.
The European founded Innovative Medicines Initiative is the largest public private partnership in the world, and it will be projects like this that will become difficult for the UK to participate in. If the UK had a seat at the table then it could influence the European research agenda and continue to be part of this scientific international effort – these are key for success.
Are we likely to see shortages in the biomedical field in the event of a no-deal Brexit?
I do not believe there will be a shortage in biotech because the UK government and authorities are aware of the very important impact of biotech for the UK economy.
However, in terms of academia, we could see a loss of talent over time as less EU citizens will be willing to move and study in the UK and vice versa.
The continuous uncertainty we have been seeing in the last few years has already had a hugely negative impact on the NHS and I know that many people will be moving back to their respective EU homes – I cannot imagine that the government will be so irresponsible as to let this happen and so believe this issue would be resolved with at least short-term solutions.
How would a no-deal Brexit affect science and research funding both in the UK and in the remaining member states?
Despite the aforementioned issues being relevant for a no deal scenario, I cannot imagine a no deal would even be on the table – even though some do not want to take it off the table, they see it as a negotiation tool.
However, this has not been very successful so far. I can’t imagine that the different parties involved are irrational – a no deal would be extremely harmful for the UK, EU and the rest of the world. I don’t think it would be beneficial for either party, and I just don’t think it will happen.
What is the ideal solution to Brexit from a healthcare standpoint? Would it be a deal, Norway plus, Theresa May’s deal or no Brexit at all?
I think people have not really been informed about the positive project the EU has been in many ways – bringing prosperity and peace in a region of the world that has been troubled in the last century. It has become one of the best places to live in terms of political stability, the focus on social welfare, values like taking care of people – all these things are important.
Also, from an economic point of view this is the largest region in the world. It seems to me there are things that need to be improved, but there are many benefits from working together and there is a lot that we share in terms of history and culture. This doesn’t mean however that there should not be debates on how to improve.
I think it was pretty unclear two years ago what people were voting for – for example with the NHS, where many people may have felt Brexit would be a key improvement regarding the NHS, but all the evidence so far points in exactly the opposite direction.
It is probably no surprise that 59% of health care industry professionals recently indicated they have a negative sentiment about the impact of Brexit on the UK healthcare sector compared to only 42% who expressed the same opinion in 2018.
Post Brexit – freedom of movement will be restricted between the UK and the rest of the EU, how is this going to affect healthcare staffing levels?
I think our data suggests that if this happens, the NHS nursing vacancies will be more than 50,000 by the end 2021, so this is not a small problem. This is based on the report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research that warns that waiting times for patients will increase very fast and it is important to note that the healthcare sector is deeply dependant on health care professionals from the EU and the rest of the world.
There is also an expectation that there will be a huge gap in social care workers and the gap in social care could be up to 70,000 workers by 2025 and the same is true for physicians – there would be a shortage of thousands, so we can only imagine the tremendous effect that will have for healthcare and waiting times and patients who need treatments.
It is a big risk if it becomes more difficult to move, and if the psychological climate in the UK becomes less welcoming for people who are considering moving there.
I think that an uncomplicated immigration process is critical, and it is also important that there is a guarantee, a sort of settled status programme that is set up for EU nationals – because otherwise people will move out, and some are doing that already.
Dr Paul-Peter Tak
Professor of Medicine