Brexit: bad for doctors, worse for patients, but there is hope

The medical profession has always been staunchly opposed to Brexit. Even before the 2016 referendum the British Medical Journal predicted dire consequences, and whilst the pro-European tone was slightly subdued in the immediate aftermath, criticism has become more vehement as the process dragged on.

Last week the BMJ reported on a meeting of 150 doctors in Belfast who found “little that to feel positive about”, not least the bizarre prospect of emergency ambulances being stopped when they crossed a hard border. A leading article (pictured) considered the plight of EU-qualified doctors who comprise almost 10% of our medical workforce, but longer feel so welcome here, with some 40% thinking of leaving. For nurses the figure is even worse: 90% of those who would have come, have now thought better of it.

Needless to say these nurses and healthcare workers are not the destitute scroungers of our newspapers, intent on sponging off our benefits system. These are good people, from civilised countries, who contribute infinitely more than they take from us. Of course nobody in reality objects to Spanish physiotherapists or Polish radiographers any more than Italian waiters, but it was the skill of the Leave campaign to conflate freedom of movement with unwanted immigration. They stoked primitive fears of our beloved country being invaded by hoards of unwanted aliens and whether they came from Europe, Asia, Africa or Mars, it was all the fault of the EU. Now we are reaping what we sowed.

Freedom of movement is also vital for research collaboration, as I know from my own experience. The joint effort to tackle the problems posed by disease makes national boundaries irrelevant, and the UK was always a leader here, before Brexit began to case its baleful shadow.

In other respects medical ideas have proved quite valuable in the Brexit debate. Dr Sarah Wollaston MP usefully applied the concept of “informed consent” – before you are wheeled into the operating theatre for a major operation, the doctor checks with you, that you understand the risks versus the benefits. That’s good medicine, and Wollaston’s “doctors amendment” in favour of a final check on whether we want Brexit, is hard to fault.

But Theresa May’s concept of medicine is very different. Faced with a patient who has harmed themselves, she would say “I know you were in two minds about it, and half of you wanted to live and half of you didn’t. But the fact is, you decided to self harm and that must be respected. Can’t I change my mind, says the patient, won’t you give me the antidote? No, says Dr May, stony faced. “You expressed the will to die, and I will deliver on that”.

But is Theresa May really callous enough to inflict a no-deal scenario on the nation, knowing that supply of medicines would be jeopardised and people’s lives would be put at risk? Quite possibly unfortunately, as she seems to have become ever more ruthless and intransigent as the crisis has deepened. This is why our MPs will need to assert themselves as they have never done before, to ride to the rescue and seize back control from her.

To end on a positive note, the march on Saturday, which I attended, was filled with genuine passion and spontaneity, in stark contrast with May’s robotic and mechanical manner. Fundamentally, medicine is about caring, and that huge but peaceful march showed there is plenty of caring left in Britain, both caring for each other and caring about the country.

* John King is a retired doctor and Remain campaigner.