Brexit puts UK health care at risk

FACULTY Q&A 

The future for the health sector in the United Kingdom is perilously uncertain, according to a comprehensive report by a cross-national team of researchers.

Understanding the impact of Brexit on health in the UK , published by U.K. think tank Nuffield Trust, builds on four years of research on the potential effects of Brexit. It was conducted by University of Michigan faculty members Holly Jarman and Scott Greer of the Department of Health Management and Policy at the School of Public Health and colleagues from the University of Oxford and University of Sheffield.

Jarman and Greer are also co-authors of Everything you always wanted to know about European Union health policy but were afraid to ask and Greer is co-editor of The European Union after Brexit.

What are your main concerns as the U.K. officially exits the European Union?

In the short term, there are really serious risks to the movement of crucial goods including vital medicines and medical devices. Companies have invested in better supply chains, but there is still little clarity about many key medical supplies. Border closures due to the new variant of COVID-19 found in the U.K. are giving us an ugly preview of how quickly a hard Brexit can become chaotic.

In the medium term, Brexit is damaging to the U.K. economy and status in the world in general, but might be particularly damaging to its globally important health science and research work. The U.K. research system grew up with EU funding, regulatory frameworks, and the vast EU market. The U.K. alone, a smaller, poorer and less powerful country, will not be so well positioned to make the big investments in science, attract the world’s research talent or shape global regulatory frameworks.

The U.K. will have to negotiate trade agreements and regulations with more powerful partners such as the U.S. and EU while managing its own internally divergent governments. This would be a major challenge for any government, even without the COVID-19 pandemic. Personal data protection and the regulation of foods, tobacco, alcohol and other key products influencing health will all have to be negotiated with potential trading partners and the governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Do you think Brexit has affected the way the EU is handling the latest COVID-19 outbreak in the U.K.’

The European Union’s COVID-19 response has been dramatic. It has massively increased its health budget, invested collectively in vaccine research and procurement, built large new stockpiles of key material, and expanded its ability to help member states, including with funds to sustain economies and public services through the crisis. It is probably no accident that all this happened after the eurosceptic U.K. government was gone from EU deliberations.

How could this affect U.S.-U.K. relations?

Two of our biggest trading partners and democratic allies are in the middle of a complex divorce that might hurt the people of Britain in many ways while making the U.K. a smaller, poorer, and less influential U.S. ally. Over time, damage to the U.K.’s health sciences will make us all poorer by limiting that country’s world-class contributions to research and training.

In addition to Jarman and Greer, authors of the new report include Mark Dayan, Brexit program lead, Nuffield Trust; Martha McCarey, Brexit and health researcher, Nuffield Trust; Nick Fahy, University of Oxford; and Tamara Hervey, University of Sheffield. The report was funded by the U.K.’s Health Foundation.


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