Will the £350m-a-week NHS promise reach its promised destination?
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
The National Health Service (NHS) is in crisis. It has been for many years - and that's why it was such an effective promise for the Vote Leave campaign to take on during the EU referendum. It is emotive and essential, and therefore played on voters' fears in a divisive campaign.
Unlike many campaign promises, you cannot sweep them away to the dustbins of history, lying in darkness in a long-forgotten manifesto. The Vote Leave campaign did more than put their pledge in black and white - they stuck it on a bus (in red and white) for the nation to see. It read: "We send the EU £350 million a week - let's fund our NHS instead." However, since the referendum victory, Brexiteers have been surprisingly coy about the promise they were all too willing to plaster around the country.
With Brexit on the horizon, will the health service receive the money it was promised? Or will the Brexiteers slam the brakes on the £350 million a week pledge?
The NHS crisis, unlike the campaign promise, is not hypothetical. According to polling from the TUC, nine out of 10 NHS workers feel that the health service is under more pressure than at any time in their working lives - and more alarmingly, seven in 10 of those workers told the union that cuts and underfunding were putting patients at risk. NHS funding will be £4 billion below what is needed in 2018-19, and by the end of the current parliament, it will face a massive £21 billion spending gap.
Frances O'Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, writes in the Guardian that the NHS cannot afford to wait for the Brexit-promised £350 million a week - it must receive the extra money now. While it may be expensive, she concludes, the cost of a NHS collapse would be catastrophic.
She argues: "How the NHS is funded is a political choice – one that shows the priorities of a government. Tory cuts to corporation tax cost £8 billion a year. Raising the personal tax allowance cost the taxpayer another £5.4 billion. Freezing fuel duty costs about £0.72 billion a year.
"Ahead of this budget, on behalf of the 1.2 million dedicated NHS staff in England and the millions of people who rely on them every day to keep them safe and well, we demand the funding increase that our NHS needs."
The referendum may also be having an impact on the number of nurses leaving the NHS. Figures released by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) show that 35,363 nurses left the NHS between October 2016 and September 2017. This is compared to just 27,786 new nurses that joined in the same period. The Independent reports that the number of European nurses leaving jumped by two-thirds (67 per cent), with more than 4,000 leaving the health service, compared to 2,435 who left before - and immediately after - the referendum.
The NHS European Office has outlined the implications of Brexit on the health service, using the acronym BREXIT: Budget, Research, Employment, X-border healthcare, Innovation and Trials.
The 'E' of this acronym is proving troubling for NHS chief executives, with a survey finding that 66 per cent "deemed workforce concerns as their most pressing challenge to delivery of high quality care", the Telegraph reports. Brexit, they add, is cited as the main barrier to overseas recruitment. There are currently 60,000 EU staff working in the NHS today.
The NHS needed the money long before it was promised by the Vote Leave campaign, and as Brexit becomes a reality, it is becoming an absolute necessity for the health service. It was clearly stated on the infamous bus that the money would be provided, but will the funds reach its intended destination?