Open Europe Blog

This afternoon, while the nation’s attention is focussed on other matters, the government has released the first tranche of reports coming under the ‘balance of competences review’. In total, six reports have been presented, of which health is the most interesting and politically significant. This is because although the EU Treaties make clear that health is primarily a national competence, the cumulative impact of EU laws on the NHS has been considerable, and in many areas largely detrimental. The report (somewhat diplomatically) states (on p.10) that:

“Concerns were also raised about various cross-sectoral EU legislation which has a significant impact on the delivery of healthcare in the UK. Many of these concerns related to proposals around data protection and the Working Time Directive (WTD) – neither of which were specifically designed with healthcare in mind.”

The main issue is the impact of the EU’s Working Time Directive – passed as a ‘health and safety’ measure, but in reality a politicised piece of social legislation – which has imposed significant additional cost burdens on the NHS as well as messing with the ability of junior doctors to learn effectively on the job. To re-cap quickly, the original Directive imposed a cap of 48 working hours, but this was then followed by a couple of rulings from the ECJ (see here for more details) which made a bad piece of legislation a lot worse by creatively interpreting its provisions concerning on-call time, further limiting the amount of time staff could spend actively looking after patients.

The Royal College of Surgeons has estimated that the WTD has led to a loss of 400,000 surgical hours per month, while the BMA has calculated it has led to the equivalent of the loss of up to 9,900 doctors. The total cost of the Working Time Directive to the UK economy currently stands at over £4bn every year, much of which falls on the NHS which has to employ additional staff – many of them locums. A recent Telegraph investigation found that many of these locums were being paid up to £2,000 per day to provide cover.

Aside from the (huge) direct financial cost, there is also the issue of trainee doctors not being able to gain the requisite level of experience, with potentially dangerous implications for patient care. The irony is that due to its own inflexibility, the Directive fails to even fulfil its basic premise of ensuring medical staff work sustainable hours – a number of investigations has found many doctors still work dangerously long hours.

Moreover, EU laws can further impact the NHS in the following, often unexpected areas:

  • Language competence testing – a highly sensitive issue following the Dr. Ubani case,
  • The Clinical Trials Directive which has contributed to a fall in the number of clinical trials taking place,
  • EU data sharing legislation which could remove the exemptions for medical research charities,
  • The Energy Efficiency Directive requires energy efficiency improvements from all public buildings which imposes a particularly heavy cost on the NHS,
  • There is no data sharing obligation to inform the UK’s regulator, the GMC if a doctor is struck off in another EU country,
  • EU free movement which allows EU migrants the ability to access the NHS free of charge (although in theory the NHS is supposed to be reimbursed), 
  • Wider issues around public procurement and competition law.
In conclusion there is clearly a clash between the EU treaties which state that health ought to be a national issue and the real impact of EU legislation on the NHS. In part, this could be due to the unique nature of the NHS compared with other European models but the political reality is that all main political parties are committed to broadly keeping the NHS. However, the report does note that other EU countries ‘bypass’ the WTD by treating service delivery and education via separate contracts, which suggests its not only the UK that has a problem with it, and that it could muster allies in an effort to force through reforms.

Highlighting such problems is exactly the point of the Balance of Competences review and its good that these issues are being brought to light. That said, for the impact to be lasting, this information must be turned into a political strategy and fed into the government’s attempts to renegotiate the UK’s position within the EU. Such a strategy is yet to be formulated, and the quicker this is done the clearer the impact of such reviews will be. 

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