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Exposing the Brexit campaign's NHS promises

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Politician's have not delivered on their rhetoric Politician's have not delivered on their rhetoric

Elation or devastation—Friday 24 June was a day that British people are not likely to forget. I was broken-hearted. I didn’t get the result I wanted. ‘Cheer up, sore loser. Move on—there’s no point whining about it.’ But this was not a loss that can be easily sucked up, and it was not a contest fairly won. Those who wanted to remain in the EU are angry, and so are many people who voted for Brexit, now that the extent of Vote Leave campaign’s deceit has been laid bare.

Many voters were driven by the prospect of dropping the EU policy on free movement of people, but Brexit supporters now say this immigration may not end, even in a UK outside of the EU. And others were motivated by a promise that the ‘£350million’ that ‘goes straight to Brussels’ would instead be spent on the NHS, which, from the beginning, had been exposed as an outright lie.

Weeks before the referendum, The previously pro-Brexit Health Select Committee chair Dr Sarah Wollaston defected to the Remain campaign because of the erroneous claim, the Institute for Fiscal Studies described it as ‘clearly absurd’, and the UK Statistics Authority deemed it a ‘potentially misleading’ gross figure that ‘does not take into account the rebate or other flows from the EU to the UK’.

The actual cost sits at around half the amount claimed, but Vote Leave ignored the experts and continued to parade this figure on a big red battle bus, in public addresses and on campaign materials. In fact, despite objection to the claim, I received three pieces of communication from the Vote Leave campaign, and all three trumpeted Brexit’s promise of generous funding for the NHS as the leading argument. Vote Leave lied and knows it – its since wiped these claims from its website. Iain Duncan Smith says the promise was one of a ‘series of possibilities’, Chris Grayling describes it as a mere ‘aspiration’, while Nigel Farage says the electorate were ‘mistaken’ for having voted to leave the EU on the basis of the claim. But around 47% of people polled in an Ipsos MORI survey in the lead-up to the referendum believed the false claim to be true.

Farage was ostracised by the official Vote Leave campaign and has always, in his own words, done his ‘own thing’—he was more concerned about curbing immigration. Many have accused him of inciting racial hatred, and when we hear the way some people describe migrants it’s not hard to see why. Before the referendum, family friends told me they were voting to leave the EU because of immigration’s impact on the NHS; they vilified EU migrants who ‘flock’ to the UK, ‘breed’, ‘use our NHS for free’ and ‘stop us from getting GP appointments’. Those who use this dehumanising language are ignorant to assume that migrants are the leading pressure on the NHS.

In truth, migration adds around £160million to NHS costs, which may seem a great deal but pales in comparison to last year’s extra £1.4billion NHS spend due to the growing and ageing population (and non-EU migration), £1.6billion for new technologies and improving care standards, and £2.8billion due to inflation and rising wages. The NHS also spites itself by being pretty bad at recouping millions of pounds it is owed by other EU countries. And we mustn’t forget that working EU migrants are taxpayers and contribute to the health service’s pot. And what about the contribution of EU migrants working in the NHS? They account for 6% of nurses and health visitors alone.

But why bother with facts and figures? Ignore the overwhelming number of prominent leaders and professional bodies in health and science who supported remaining in the EU; the UK has ‘had enough of experts’, says Michael Gove. In healthcare, we are sceptical of anecdotes and practise the gold standard of evidence-based medicine – we should practise evidence-based politics too.

Abigail James is the editor of Nurse Prescribing. This article first appeared in the July issue of Nurse Prescribing

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