Patient care in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will be put at risk if the next government fails to maintain a ‘soft border’ following Brexit, warns BMA
Ahead of next week’s general election, the British Medical Association is calling1 on politicians to protect the future of patient care in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland following Brexit, by ensuring that a ‘soft border’ is maintained.
The existing open border arrangements, alongside an expansion in the provision of all-island healthcare, provide a number of benefits for patients2, including access to specialist medical services and highly trained clinicians. This access is at risk if border restrictions are introduced following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
The BMA is warning that cross-border health services and patient access to healthcare, including the cooperation of emergency services and other organisations in response to major emergencies and public health risks, must not be impeded following Brexit.
Examples of cross- border co-operation in healthcare between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland:
- The all-island paediatric cardiology service based at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Dublin, enables children from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to receive life-changing heart surgery without having to undertake lengthy journeys or to travel to England to receive treatment.3 This service was introduced following the closure of children's heart surgery services at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) in 2015, which a review by health ministers in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland had found to be unsustainable.
- The new radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin Hospital in Northern Ireland provides access to radiotherapy services for more than 500,000 cancer patients4 on both sides of the border. Prior to this, some patients faced a 200-mile round trip to a cancer centre in Belfast5.
Dr Mark Porter, BMA council chair, said:
“As separate health services in Northern Ireland and the Republic often do not have sufficient demand to provide cost-effective, highly specialist medical services, such as the all-island children’s cardiac service, the only viable way to provide these services to patients is to deliver them across both countries.
“Over the last two decades, a significant growth in the provision of all-island healthcare has improved care for patients and allowed both Northern Ireland and the Republic to retain highly trained doctors, who otherwise may not have had the patient demand necessary to warrant their full-time expertise.
“If border restrictions are introduced following Brexit we risk reversing this progress and damaging patient care. The next government must maintain a soft border after Brexit to help ensure that cross-border health services and patient access to healthcare are not affected by leaving the EU.”
The BMA is also calling on the next government to safeguard the future of vital health services by ensuring that doctors in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland maintain the ability to move freely between both countries, and that mutual recognition of professional qualifications between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland continues.
Dr Peter Maguire, a consultant anaesthetist who lives and works in Newry in Northern Ireland but also travels across the border to work in Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland, said:
“I am one of a number of Northern Irish doctors who regularly work across the border to care for patients. If a hard border is introduced following Brexit, it will present a number of difficulties for both health services and for people who live on the border.
“It has become increasingly difficult working in an NHS at breaking point and if the government fails to maintain a soft border in negotiations, and I am forced to choose which side of the border to work on, then I’m sad to say I will leave the NHS and move to the Republic.
“It’s not just cross-border movement or doctors leaving the NHS that will be an issue for patients. Ireland is now the largest net exporter of pharmaceuticals in the EU accounting for more than 50 per cent of all exports from the country6. What will happen to the cost of drugs if there are tariffs imposed on these goods?
“Medication that I already have to make a business case for to access in Northern Ireland will potentially become even less available to patients who truly need it.”
Notes to editor:
The British Medical Association (BMA) is the voice of doctors and medical students in the UK. It is an apolitical professional organisation and independent trade union, representing doctors and medical students from all branches of medicine across the UK and supporting them to deliver the highest standards of care.
- The BMA is calling on politicians of all parties to outline credible and sustainable plans to safeguard the future of the NHS. For the BMA’s full manifesto please click here.
- Cross-border co-operation with regards to healthcare has increased in recent years. Figures show that between 2003 and 2015, more than €40m was invested in cross-border health and social care initiatives via CAWT (Co-operation and Working Together), with additional projects amounting to €53m submitted in relation to acute hospital services, prevention and early intervention, tackling health inequalities and other services.