Belfast Telegraph

No deal will stretch Northern Ireland’s healthcare to breaking point, doctors warn

Dr Chaand Nagpaul
Dr Chaand Nagpaul

By Lisa Smyth

A no-deal Brexit will leave the Northern Ireland health service stretched to breaking point, a report warns today.

A leading medical union has issued a stark alert over the "devastating" dangers of leaving the EU without an agreement and claimed the UK is "sleepwalking into a disaster".

It comes as the health service here is already slipping into crisis, with spiralling waiting times and nurses threatening strike action amid concerns that patients' lives are being put at risk.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has now published a briefing paper which claims that a no-deal Brexit will leave "practically no area of healthcare untouched".

It says that "at a minimum", a hard border could deter cross-border workers - which the health system in Northern Ireland relies heavily on - from making their daily commute.

"This risks putting an already pressurised service under even more strain," the report says.

"Without cross border co-operation in the delivery of vital health services, Northern Ireland could not sustain specialised services.

"This risks not only forcing patients to once again travel considerable distances to receive care but could exacerbate existing difficulties within HSC (health and social care system) to retain experienced, specialised doctors.

The report warns that the meandering 310 mile-long border presents another "significant challenge for health professionals".

It adds: "Doctors travelling from one point in Northern Ireland to another point around the border area may have to go through the Republic of Ireland.

"Doctors and healthcare workers, who are often in possession of medication, would need assurances that they are covered legally to both be in possession of medication in an EU country and be legally insured to drive there."

Dr Tom Black, BMA Northern Ireland council chair, said: "We have spoken already about some of the potential impact Brexit may have on the supply of medicines, but what this paper does is lay out in black and white the full extent of the problems we will face if there was a no-deal Brexit.

"Across the UK, health organisations are warning that we are sleepwalking into a disaster and nothing I am seeing or hearing from Government is reassuring me that sufficient planning is being done."

According to the Department of Health website, it does not anticipate any impact on day-to-day provision of all health and social care services.

This includes A&E care, social care, GP and dentist services.

The department has said that detailed contingency planning continues to be a matter of high priority.

However, Dr Black said the BMA has been unable to establish how services will be affected if the UK leaves the EU without a deal on October 31.

Among the questions being posed by doctors are whether they will be able to carry medication across the border as they could potentially be accused of possession of drugs with intent to supply.

Dr Black continued: "Similarly, we are being asked about issues around employing staff who might be from another European country, or the ongoing treatment of someone from Europe who is living here.

"With Brexit potentially only nine weeks away there really needs to be much more information shared with doctors and the general public on what they need to do in these scenarios."

The BMA briefing paper, A health service on the brink: the dangers of a no-deal Brexit, demands urgent answers to more than 40 questions, including what will happen to people with rare disease receiving cross-border treatment.

The BMA is the latest organisation to voice serious concerns about the potential effects of a no-deal Brexit. as it is looking more and more likely that the UK will crash out of the EU in just a matter of weeks.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, head of the BMA, said a no-deal Brexit will "irreparably harm the NHS".

Dr Black added: "No-deal will have catastrophic consequences for patients, the health workforce and health services.

"Given these dangers, every possible step must be taken to avoid it."

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said it is "regrettable" that there is not a deal "at this stage".

He said: "We want to see an acceptable deal put in place before October 31. Stories like this emphasise the need for the UK to continue to put in place measures to mitigate against the sort of impacts highlighted in this report, including through the stockpiling of medicine supplies.

"In addition, the UK Government has made clear it will not be erecting a hard border on the island of Ireland, even if there is no deal. The EU must become less intransigent and work to achieve a deal that meets the needs of both sides so that a no-deal outcome is avoided."

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