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2016 UK EU membership referendum

In line with a Conservative manifesto commitment, on 22 February 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron announced in the House of Commons that an in/out referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union would be held on 23 June 2016. 

The UK EU membership referendum took place on 23 June 2016. 51.9% of voters opted to leave the EU; 48.1% opted to remain, with turnout of 72.2%. Following David Cameron’s resulting resignation, Prime Minister Theresa May committed to implementing the referendum result to 'Brexit'.

The process of withdrawing from the EU was lengthy, delayed by Brexit impasse in parliament. Following a general election at the end of 2019, parliament ratified a withdrawal agreement. The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 and entered a transition period until the end of 2020 while the UK and EU negotiated additional arrangements regarding their future relationship.

Health policy and the referendum campaign

Arguments relating to the NHS featured throughout the referendum campaign. The official Vote Leave campaign focused heavily on a claim that the UK contributed £350m a week to the EU and that this would be spent on the NHS if the UK left the EU. In the run-up to the vote, Sir Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, described the use of this figure as ‘misleading’, since it did not take account of the rebate or payments received by the UK from the EU.

In April 2016, in advance of the referendum, the Health Committee heard evidence on the ‘impact of membership of the EU on health policy in the UK’. NHS providers submitted written evidence that senior NHS leaders had significant concerns that leaving the EU would negatively impact the NHS, for example on the ability to recruit staff from the EU. Jane Ellison MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Public Health, stated that ‘over 100,000’ EU citizens worked in the health and social care system when giving evidence.

Social care and Brexit

While the potential impact on social care was not high-profile during the referendum campaign, it became more so following the result. In September 2019, the government published with details of its ‘Operation Yellowhammer' planning for leaving the EU without having agreed a deal, as well as its planning assumptions about the impact of a so-called 'no-deal Brexit'. The document outlined that: ‘An increase in inflation following EU exit would significantly impact adult social care providers due to increasing staff and supply costs, and may lead to provider failure, with smaller providers impacted within 2-3 months and large providers 4-6 months after exit.’


The Electoral Commission.
Results and turnout at the EU referendum [webpage].
The Electoral Commission; 2015.

Dilnot A.
UK Statistics Authority statement on the use of official statistics on contributions to the European Union.
UK Statistics Authority; 2016.

Health and Social Care Committee.
Impact of EU membership on health policy in the UK- publications [webpage].
UK parliament; 2016.

UK government.
Operation Yellow hammer: HMG Reasonable Worst Case Planning Assumptions.
UK government; 2019.