The Vote Leave campaign bus has ‘We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead’ written on its side. This number is, to be polite, a bit dodgy. Due to the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher, the actual amount is about £250m a week, or £13bn a year. The EU then spends more than £4bn in the UK, mainly on farmers and badly-off parts of the country, which would push the figure down to about £165m a week.
But let’s assume that after a vote to leave the EU, the government doesn’t stay in the single market (so pays the EU nothing), decides not to replace any of the EU spending on agriculture and the regions and instead uses all the saved money for the NHS; and that leaving the EU has no impact on the economy. Would a £13bn boost to the NHS annual budget solve its problems?
It would be useful, but not a cure-all. UK’s four national health services spend more than £130bn annually. NHS England alone is struggling to find £22bn in annual efficiency savings by the end of this Parliament; England’s share of the EU money would cover just half of this.
Vote Leave’s ‘Our Case’ claims that the £350m is “Enough to build a brand new, fully-staffed NHS hospital every week”. It illustrates this with a picture of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, which cost £695m, but £350m will get you a substantial new hospital building – the new Royal Liverpool has a capital cost of £329m. The problem is the “fully-staffed” part – employees are the NHS’s biggest cost.
And given the £13bn is based on leaving the single market, some NHS staff from EU countries staff would almost certainly move home. Even if they were given the right to work, it seems unlikely this would apply to their families, and anyway losing the automatic right to live and work here would make their lives harder in terms of red tape. NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has argued against Brexit on economic grounds, but he also spoke of staffing problems given there are 130,000 EU doctors, nurses and care workers.
There are respectable reasons to vote to leave the EU, but it’s hard to see how saving the NHS can be one of them.
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