Brexit Health Alliance

Risk from pandemic could be heightened without continued cooperation with EU

Niall Dickson

Tackling global outbreaks such as coronavirus could become more difficult if the UK loses access to the EU’s early warning system for cross border threats and does not find an effective replacement.

The Brexit Health Alliance (BHA) – which is led by the NHS Confederation and brings together the NHS, medical research, industry, patients and public health bodies to safeguard the interests of patients and the healthcare and research they rely on – is warning that public health is at risk in a number of areas if health is not made a priority in the forthcoming negotiations with the EU.

The Prime Minister has rejected the idea that the UK should adopt Brussels-made rules arguing that the UK can “develop separate and independent policies” in a range of fields.

But according to the alliance it is not clear what this will mean for continued cooperation with key EU agencies, such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), and access platforms like the Early Warning and Response System.

Today (Monday 10 February) the BHA has published Prioritising health in our future relationship with the EU  which highlights why health must be a priority in the limited timescale for the negotiations.

The BHA is calling for strong and continued coordination between the UK and EU in dealing with serious cross-border public health threats, such as pandemics and infectious diseases.
It suggests that if partnerships with bodies, such as the ECDC, are lost or diluted, it could weaken the UK’s response to outbreaks, like coronavirus and increase the chances of diseases spreading.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation and co-chair of the Brexit Health Alliance, said:

“Infectious diseases do not respect borders and we need to tackle them together.

“It is in all our interests to maintain these vital links between the UK and the EU not least because working together we are more likely to trace and tackle serious outbreaks effectively.

“Our worry is that all sides in these negotiations are under massive time pressures to agree a future trade deal and so there is a risk that the safety and health of patients and citizens across Europe could be overlooked.

“There is no reason why leaving the EU should mean that the UK and the EU cannot maintain existing arrangements but if we are to achieve this health has to be seen as a priority, alongside business, in the negotiations.

“We would also like to see early agreements to protect patient safety, give citizens rights to healthcare, provide access to medicines and support medical research.”

The alliance has also called for guarantees that critical medicines and medical devices will continue to be able to flow into and out of the UK and Europe, that UK and EU residents should be able to access affordable healthcare when travelling in EU member states and that there must be a continued role for the UK in Europe-wide research.

The briefing calls for agreements in the forthcoming negotiations, as early as possible, to address five key areas:

  • Patient safety - Shared regulatory frameworks to continue for medicines and medical technologies across the UK and the EU, so patients are guaranteed a high level of safety and rapid access to new treatments, and so that public health and wellbeing are protected.
  • Access to medicines and medical devices - Continued cooperation in import and export of medicines and medical technologies for frictionless trade of health products across UK/EU borders.
  • Citizen’s rights to treatment - UK and EU citizens to continue to benefit from rights to healthcare in any of the EU member states, ensuring simple and safe access to treatment when working, living or travelling, at local, affordable cost.
  • Furthering medical research - Continued participation in a Europewide system that encourages cooperation, innovation and research to continually improve patients’ options for treatment. Continued UK/EU collaboration is vital to retain Europe’s reputation as an attractive destination for cutting-edge research.
  • Public health – Continued close coordination between the UK and EU on public health and wellbeing through sharing data and alerts about cross border threats. Participation in key EU data-sharing platforms and alert systems, such as the Early Warning and Response System, for timely sharing of information about health threats and ensuring maximum preparedness to tackle them.

The Brexit Health Alliance will continue to flag the issues that affect patients and the health sector as negotiations progress.

Notes to editors:

  • Read why health must be a priority in the limited timescale for the negotiations in Brexit Health Alliance briefing Prioritising health in our future relationship with the EU.
  • The Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) allows the exchange of information on risk assessment and management of cross border threats. EWRS is a web-based system linking the European Commission, public health authorities in member states and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. It was created to ‘ensure a rapid and effective response by the EU to events (including emergencies) related to communicable diseases.
  • The system has restricted access granted by the Commission and is used for notifications on outbreaks, exchanging information and decisions about the coordination of measures among member states. It has played an important role to support health crisis related SARS, Ebola and other communicable diseases. Read more about it here:
  • In addition to the EWRS, the World Health Organisation (WHO) does have systems that the UK will use and read more detail about how they work here.

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