Public health must not slip off the radar during Brexit negotiations

Grace Norman and Mark Weiss

Earlier this year, when the then EU (Withdrawal) Bill was debated at length in the House of Lords, the Faculty of Public Health found itself leading a coalition of 64 health organisations and charities.  

The coalition came together at record speed with the aim of seeking to protect the public’s health as the UK leaves the EU.

We were delighted to see Lords from all sides of the House respond in support of our “do no harm” campaign.

In response, the government guaranteed that “our high standards of health improvement, health security, food safety and environmental protection will not be compromised in any way as we leave the EU,” and that the UK’s trade negotiations after April 2019 will not “rollback [public health] standards.”

Ministers also set out five commitments to protect and improve the public’s health as the UK leaves the EU:

  1. An unequivocal guarantee that the UK’s public health protections and standards will be the same or higher after Brexit.
  2. Those protections and standards will not be “traded away” with the US or any other trade partner.
  3. This and future governments can be challenged in UK domestic courts after Brexit, should it fail to meet these commitments.
  4. The UK’s health partnerships with the EU will remain just as strong in the future.
  5. The public’s health will be at the “epicentre” of the UK’s Brexit negotiations and future policy making.

These commitments are substantial and mean that the laws which currently protect the public’s health, including those related to air quality, tobacco, alcohol, food, and medicines, are being maintained and translated directly into British law. They could also be strengthened in the future. As health and medical professionals and campaigners we need to recognise and welcome these commitments.

At the same time, we also need to ensure that these commitments actually happen. In the past few weeks alone, health campaigners have raised fears that diabetes patients could be “seriously disadvantaged” if supplies of insulin are affected by a no deal Brexit. There is ongoing uncertainty about medicine supplies, worries about NHS staff shortages, and a big question mark over the future quality and safety of food sold in the UK.

So, where do we go from here?  

The health and medical community needs to continue to raise its concerns in public and with the government to ensure that the public’s health does not slip back off the radar and become “collateral damage” in the push for Brexit.  

But alongside that, we also need to help ministers turn the very public commitments they have given into practical action on the ground.

To make this as easy as possible, the Faculty of Public Health has developed a guide to using the public health duty to “do no harm.” It is aimed primarily at civil servants and health campaigners.

It addresses questions that those working on Brexit both inside and outside government might have. It is particularly pertinent for the UK’s Brexit negotiators who will need to place a high level of human health protection at the heart of their negotiations.

Please read it, share it, and use it so that together we can seek to protect the public’s health as we leave the EU.

Grace Norman is a speciality registrar in Public Health, working with the Faculty of Public Health on our Brexit policy work. Prior to specialty training, Grace worked in the NHS and local authority public health. Twitter @graceenorman 

Competing interests: None declared.

Mark Weiss has been the senior policy officer at the UK Faculty of Public Health for the past seven years, and leads FPH’s policy work on Brexit. Twitter @FPH

Competing interests: None declared.