Brexit: implications for the NHS healthcare system

Eu flag with UK flag in middleWith the Brexit deadline currently looming large on 29th March 2019, the potential effect on the NHS waits to be seen.

NHS Staffing

According to a report by the King’s Fund, there are currently more than 100,000 NHS staff vacancies, which works out to be 1 in 11 posts. Adult care is also affected with vacancies currently standing at 110,000, representing around 1 in 10 social workers and 1 in 11 care worker roles being vacant.

The King’s Fund has stated that historically the NHS has relied on foreign workers, with many of them coming from the EU. Currently around 5% of the English NHS workforce and 8% of the social care workforce are EU nationals. The volume of EU workers has risen over time, suggesting the reliance on them has grown.

Treatment Abroad

Currently there is a reciprocal deal among EU countries to provide healthcare to other EU nationals while visiting member countries. This facility is provided under the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).

Currently around 1 million British migrants are living in EU member states, with approximately 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. However, the number are not wholly comparable as many UK migrants are elderly, having retired to sunnier climes, whilst EU migrants in the UK are likely to be of working age. The British migrants are therefore more likely to require healthcare services.

At present there is no arrangement in place for this facility to continue and so UK travellers would require travel insurance to ensure they receive medical cover whilst out of the UK, as is the case for travel outside of the EU.

Working Time Directive

The EU introduced the European Working Time Directive to ensure workers do no more than 48 hours work in a week. This is to protect both workers and patients. The UK government have indicated that this would be brought in into UK law to preserve the current status. However, the King’s Fund have stated that this could be changed if future governments see fit to do so.


The effect of Brexit on the economy is something that has been discussed in depth, but it is widely believed that it will suffer, at least in the short term. While some assurances and agreements have been made to protect NHS funding for the next 5 years, this only covers certain aspects of the NHS. If public spending cuts occur, it could be that services outside of the agreement may suffer cuts in their funding. This would potentially affect social care, possibly seeing costs of the services increasing to cover the funding shortfall.

In conclusion, Brexit is already affecting the NHS, with a reduction in the number of European staff joining the service. However, assessing the wider impact on services will remain difficult until a clear Brexit plan is revealed by the Government.

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