The NHS could need an extra £540 million per week by 2030 as the country deals with the economic impact of Brexit, a report by the Health Foundation has said.
The independent healthcare charity said the impact of a Brexit-hit economy on public finances, combined with an NHS budget already in deficit, would create shortfalls far greater than the government would probably commit to spending on healthcare.
A deficit of £2.5 billion was reported by healthcare providers at the end of the last financial year.
Even before Britain voted to leave the EU, the Health Foundation predicted that deficit could rise to £16 billion by 2030–31 as a result of various factors including an ageing population and an increase in the prevalence of chronic conditions.
But if Brexit causes the economy to suffer, the new report predicts the NHS will see that deficit rise to at least £19 billion, or £365 million a week, by 2030–31. And if Britain leaves the European Economic Area (which allows for free trade with the EU without full membership), the charity expects it to reach £28 billion, or £540 million a week.
The formal process of Britain leaving the EU is expected to take years. However, the short-term economic impact is already being felt, with the pound hitting a 31-year low and many businesses suggesting they may focus growth outside of the UK.
The government has promised to spend more on the NHS every year during this parliament, but the authors of the Health Foundation's report say that if the economy suffers, the impact on public spending could see NHS budgets cut by £2.8 billion by 2020.
"When the economy sneezes, the NHS catches a cold," said Anita Charlesworth, director of research and economics at the Health Foundation. "The NHS is already halfway through its most austere decade ever, with finances in a truly dire state – it cannot afford to face another hit."
One of the promises made by the Leave campaign in the run-up to the EU referendum was that £50 million per day worth of membership fees paid by the UK to Brussels could be handed back to the NHS, a claim that has repeatedly been rowed back on since.
In her bid to become leader of the Conservative party, and therefore prime minister, Leave campaigner Andrea Leadsom has now said she would spend "billions more" on the NHS if she were to be installed at Number 10, but has not given clear figures.
Remain campaigner Theresa May, the favourite in the race to succeed David Cameron, has not yet made a specific commitment towards what she would spend on healthcare if she were to become Tory leader.
Stephen Dalton, chief executive of NHS Confederation, said "we urgently need political leaders to move on from ill-informed rhetoric about the NHS" and called for "an honest conversation with the public about how it is funded".
"We are entering uncertain times and we need strong leadership to address these issues," Royal College of Physicians president Professor Jane Dacre added.
Independent health charity The King's Fund cited staffing; access to treatment outside the UK; regulations of working hours, drugs, and clinical trials; and cross-border cooperation in the prevention of diseases as additional potential issues the NHS could face after Britain leaves the EU.
The charity expressed concern that UK pensioners living elsewhere in the EU might return to Britain if their immigration status were to change in the wake of Brexit, which could increase the strain an ageing population places on the NHS even further.
"With the referendum result now clear, there are many issues at stake that will require the government’s urgent attention," The King's Fund's Helen McKenna wrote. "If an economic shock materialises, the implications for patients and service users could be profound."
Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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