Brexit poses substantial risk to public health, doctors warn

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The Government has not yet taken “sufficient action” to deal with the “substantial risk” Brexit poses to public health, doctors’ leaders have warned.

The British Medical Association (BMA) raised fears that new trade deals struck by the UK after leaving the European Union could make it easier for companies to challenge – or even demand compensation for – “legitimate measures to improve public health”, such as the introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol.

This must be a “red line” in all future trade negotiations, the BMA demanded.

BMA Scotland chair Dr Peter Bennie said: “The BMA have been clear that Brexit poses a series of substantial risks to healthcare and public health in Scotland.

“We are yet to see sufficient action to believe there is a real commitment to address these issues, in particular at a UK Government level.”

He cited trade agreements which could impact on public health as being a “key example” of this.

While Dr Bennie accepted these deals would be “the subject of considerable negotiation”, he stressed: “There must be a clear red line which rules out any moves that put at risk the ability of governments at all levels in the UK to introduce legitimate measures that tackle the extremely serious public health issues we face in Scotland.

“With our NHS already struggling to cope with rising demand, challenges like obesity or our damaging relationship with alcohol must be dealt with through serious, comprehensive action.

“There is a risk that new trade deals may increase the power of business and investors to challenge or even demand compensation when legitimate measures to improve public health are introduced.

“This absolutely must not be allowed to happen.”

He added: “While we have been through a considerable legal process with minimum unit pricing, for example, it is now set to go ahead and save lives.

“Anything that reduces our ability to pursue such policies, or puts more power in the hands of those who would oppose such measures, simply must be ruled out.

“We look to the UK Government to make that commitment urgently and hope the Scottish Government will help us make the case.”

He made the comments as the BMA outlined its concerns about the impact of Brexit on public health in a submission to MSPs on Holyrood’s Health Committee.

This made clear that the NHS “should be exempted to any future international trade deal” – warning if this happened it could fragment the health service and open it up to private competition.

The paper also argued EU legislation had brought about “significant improvements” in the UK’s health policy, by, for example, strengthening the rules on tobacco and e-cigarettes, and taking a tougher stance on the promotion of unhealthy food and drinks to youngsters.

“With Scotland facing some considerable challenges in public health, it is vital Brexit is not allowed to erode any measures taken to make our country healthier,” it stated.

Doctors also stressed it was important any future trade deals do not reduce the “high standard of regulations currently imposed on food imports by the EU”.

Dr Bennie also spoke about the impact leaving the EU could have on the NHS workforce, stating: “We already have doctors struggling to cope with delivering the care that is asked of them.

“We need a coherent future immigration system that will provide the flexibility necessary to address workforce shortages in NHS Scotland.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “The Government is committed to strengthening the UK’s world-leading science and research base as we leave the EU.

“We recognise the importance of a close cooperative relationship between the UK and EU in the field of medicines regulation and science and research collaboration.

“We intend for this to form a key part of our deep and special partnership with the EU.

“And we want to enable continued collaboration with the EU on public health, recognising its international nature and influence, to safeguard the resilience of both the UK and the EU.”

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