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Thousands of Irish health personnel and patients working or getting treatment in the UK face uncertainty from this week as British Prime Minister, Theresa May triggers Article 50 of the EU to begin the Brexit process.

Health Minister, Simon Harris, has stressed that his plan is to ensure minimum disruption as Britain leaves the EU while this week the Department of Health told IMN that it had prioritised maintaining services on a cross-border, all-island and Ireland/UK basis in the months ahead. In particular, the Department said it was conscious that “the operation of the EU Treatment Abroad Scheme and the Cross-Border Directive, under which Irish patients currently enjoy the ability to access health services in the UK, and in particular in Northern Ireland, may be affected by the UK leaving the EU and, as part of its analysis and contingency planning, the Department of Health is currently examining these issues and planning for a range of possible scenarios”.

However, it was important to remember that until the UK formally withdraws from the Union, it remains a full member, with all of its existing rights and obligations and that there are no immediate changes in the area of health as a consequence of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. And the UK Department of Health this week also confirmed to IMN that access by its citizens in Ireland and other EU countries was something “we want to secure as part of early negotiations.”

The spokesman added that the UK Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, had made it clear that overseas workers form a crucial part of the British health service, claiming “that we value their contribution immensely.”  On top of that, the Prime Minister Theresa May has stated that she wanted to protect the status of EU nationals already living in Britain.

Mr Harris and his department also confirmed that  “Ireland will participate fully in the negotiations from the EU side” aimed at protecting and advancing the interest of its citizens.  A potential advantage for Ireland arising from the break up would be in the area of research where the Department said it would “seek to maximise any opportunities.” Another opportunity could be the re-location of the European Medicines Agency which Ireland will attempt to attract to Dublin. The government has already set up an interdepartmental/interagency working group to prepare a proposal in support of such a move.  The group has pointed to proximity to London and to the Irish medicines regulator as well as a safe and stable pro EU environment as compelling reasons why it should be given the green light to rehouse the agency on Irish soil.

According to the Department of Health, the main advantage of such a move “is that it offers the best guarantee of ensuring business continuity of the Agency, thereby minimising interruptions to its important work.”