‘Do no harm’: Protecting the public’s health as we leave the EU

13 March 2018

About 3 mins to read
John Middleton

When it comes to Brexit, regardless of what side of the fence we sit, one thing that unites us is our desire to promote and protect the health of our citizens. That’s why, as President of the Faculty of Public Health (FPH), I’m proud to be supporting the cross-party ‘do no harm’ amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which will be debated at committee stage in the House of Lords this week. 

The amendment has the backing of a growing number of people who sit across the political spectrum in both Houses of Parliament. Seventeen medical royal colleges, faculties and societies – including the Health Foundation – have also added their support to a briefing paper outlining why this amendment is needed. This was sent to all peers ahead of the amendment being debated at committee stage.

Although the public health amendment might appear straightforward to some, it is of profound importance to the health of future generations of people in the UK. If adopted, it would commit this and future UK and devolved governments, and public authorities, to making sure the public’s health and wellbeing is of the highest priority after the UK leaves the EU.

The secretary of state for health has said that the government continues to be committed to ‘maintaining participation in European cooperation on disease prevention [and] health’. Yet concerns remain among members of the public health community about the potential impact of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill on the public's health.

Without the safety net of EU law, and in the context of cuts to public health and wider health budgets, it’s fair to be concerned that we may well see a gradual erosion of our existing high level of vitally important public health legislation, policy and practice. Placing assurances on the face of the Bill will be the clearest demonstration from the government – to the people of the UK – of its commitment to the principle of ‘do no harm’ as we leave the EU.

The amendment is not about preserving EU law and regulation in aspic though. It would be for British courts to decide in future how they are interpreted, and EU law will continue to change after the UK leaves the EU, as will UK law. It is about acknowledging that we have made huge progress in public health during our time in the EU, (for example, through EU tobacco and air quality directives) and, as we leave, this and future governments are committed to ensuring we do not take a step back in the progress we've made.

It is also about recognising the many ways in which health may be affected by shifts across the social, environmental and economic landscape beyond Brexit. That is why protecting and supporting the health of our citizens must surely be of paramount importance, and not just one issue among many that governments must consider when deciding policy.

Former health minister and crossbench peer, Lord Warner, tabled the ‘do no harm’ amendment and will lead the debate in the House of Lords. He will be supported by co-signatories to the amendment: Labour and Liberal Democrat frontbench health spokespeople, Lord Hunt and Baroness Jolly, and crossbench Peer Lord Patel.

For more information on the amendment, you can read this article from The House.

John Middleton (@doctorblooz) is President of the Faculty of Public Health (@FPH)

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