Brexit: it will take years for the British health sector to stabilize


The end of January 2020 marked the start of the Brexit transition period as, after more than three years of anticipation, the UK separated from the EU. The disastrous “No Deal” scenario has been averted and there will be no sudden change for businesses. However, there are still more questions than answers about the outlook for the UK healthcare sector after Brexit. Urte Jakimaviciute, Senior Director of Market Research at GlobalDatashares his views on the challenges facing the UK healthcare sector.

By Global Data

January 31 is not the Brexit finish line. There is considerable uncertainty about the UK’s position in healthcare and it will take years for the sector to stabilize. Brexit is not over until the UK is out of the transition period and new trade, regulatory and compliance rules are agreed with the EU.

The Brexit transition period aims to give the UK and EU time to agree on what their future relationship will look like. During this period, the UK is also open to new trade deals outside the bloc, with a transatlantic trade deal between the UK and the US attracting the most media attention. While deviating from EU rules and regulations may benefit some businesses, others, particularly with closer ties to the EU, will suffer the most from the UK’s departure.

Personal health

A large proportion of UK businesses depend on external labour, including EU citizens. Staff shortages in the healthcare sector are an ongoing problem in the UK and restrictions on free movement will make the problem worse. EU nationals make up 9.5% of doctors in hospitals and community health services in England. In addition, 6.4% of all nursing staff and 5.7% of scientific, therapeutic and technical staff in the NHS come from the EU.

London is particularly dependent on EU health staff, with a third of all EU staff working in the capital. To control the opening of the gap between supply and demand, the British government will have to create an effective immigration system after Brexit.

National Health Service (NHS) service delivery

Under the Cross-Border Healthcare Directive and the S2 scheme, patients are allowed to receive NHS-funded treatment in any other EU country or Switzerland if the treatment cannot be provided by the NHS within a ‘medically justifiable’ time in the UK. The NHS has already been under pressure to deliver high quality care while cutting efficiency. Failure to plan for future workforce and workload could set the stage for growing shortages and declining service quality.

NHS rally in 2018. (Credit: Paul Mattsson)

Future free trade agreements and NHS

Trump has openly expressed his interest in concluding a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom. The US President also blamed countries “profiteering” from US pharmaceutical research and extorting unreasonably low prices from the US pharmaceutical industry, reiterating that the US has great power over trading partners. While the President has denied Britain’s NHS took part in a trade discussion table during NATO’s 70th anniversary, speculation about Trump’s interest in the NHS exists.

The main concern is that the United States will want its pharmaceutical companies to gain better commercial access to the NHS as part of a trade deal, which could force British health services to pay higher prices for American drugs.

Drug supply

2020 will see continued pressure on the UK medicines supply chain. While the greatest fear—drug shortage associated with ‘No Deal’ Brexit is irrelevant, at least during the transition period, concerns surrounding the drug supply chain still exist.

If the UK leaves the European Medicines Agency (EMA) medicines approval system and develops its own, Britain risks delayed access to new medicines.

Clinical tests

Announcement of the Drugs and Medical Devices Bill, which includes easing some regulations regarding clinical trials, accelerating the approval of innovative drugs, easing the process of prescribing low-risk drugs and extending the UK’s lead in personalized medicine and artificial intelligence, looks promising. Nevertheless, there is not much progress and clarity on what steps will be taken to move these initiatives forward.

Another risk may arise from the failure to implement the EU Clinical Trials Regulation within the UK regulatory system, which could affect UK participation in multinational clinical trials.

Scientific Research

Scientific innovation requires unlimited access to information and human resources. The loss of the UK-EU partnership will mean limited participation in EU-funded programs such as Horizon 2020, the EU’s largest research and innovation programme, in which the UK is currently the second recipient of funding.

While the UK will be able to participate in Horizon 2020 as a non-EU country, prospects for maintaining the current preferred mode of collaboration are unclear, with EU officials stressing that there is no will have “no selection” on the post-Brexit agreement on research cooperation.

The pharmaceutical industry is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors in the UK and a major contributor to its economy. The UK government has 11 months to provide clarity on the direction the country will take to maintain its current leadership role in life sciences. While the UK and the EU have successfully broken the Brexit deadlock, there is still a long way to go before the final shape of the UK and its healthcare sector after Brexit is set. reached.


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