In a controversial intervention in the Brexit debate, Hunt warns in an Observer article that leaving will create risks to levels of service and investment and could trigger a loss of key staff that will leave gaps on the NHS frontline.
His decision to link the future of the NHS to arguments over EU membership was labelled by pro-Brexit campaigners as scaremongering.
While opinion polls show the remain side narrowly ahead, with less than three months to go before the in/out referendum on 23 June, No 10 remains concerned that high numbers of undecided voters could still back Brexit.
It is now focusing on arguments it hopes will persuade them of the risks and effects on their everyday lives of voting to leave.
Hunt argues that, with the NHS budget already under huge pressure, funding levels can only be maintained if the British economy remains strong.
He cites a series of economic surveys, including from the CBI, the London School of Economics and Oxford Economics, as evidence of the adverse impact of an exit on the UK economy and the government’s ability to stick to high levels of funding for public services.
“This would inevitably mean less money for public services like the NHS,” he writes. “Those who want to leave need to explain how they could protect the NHS from this economic shock.”
Hunt suggests that progress the government is making in employing 11,000 extra doctors and 12,000 more nurses will be threatened and warns of the “damage caused by losing some of the 100,000 skilled EU workers who work in our health and social care system”. Some could leave because of uncertainties over visas and residence permits, he suggests.
The claims were attacked by Matthew Elliott, the chief executive of Vote Leave, who argued that Brexit would release funds to improve the NHS.
“Earlier this week the energy minister [Amber Rudd] compared leaving the EU to a nuclear disaster, and now Jeremy Hunt is saying it would destroy the NHS. Does this government’s scaremongering know no bounds?” he said.
“Under Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship, the NHS has plummeted into a financial crisis. If we vote to leave we can stop wasting money on EU bureaucrats and instead spend our money on our priorities like the NHS.”
Many doctors, health workers and academics believe there is a positive benefit to the nation’s health from EU membership.
A group of health workers and academics recently founded a successful online campaign called Healthier in the EU, which now has more than 50,000 followers on Facebook.
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP and former health minister, backed Hunt’s EU stance.
He said: “I don’t agree with Jeremy over the current funding of the NHS.
“I’ve been very clear that I’d like to see the government investing more in the NHS and social care. But we could not even have that debate if we vote to leave the European Union.
“Leaving Europe could be disastrous for our NHS and other public services. The sizeable negative impact on the economy will have an inevitable, damaging knock-on effect on our ability to fund the NHS and social care. It is simply a risk we should not take.”
Stephen Dorrell, the former health secretary and ex-chairman of the Commons health select committee, said: “Modern healthcare relies in the first instance on the dedication and professionalism of clinical staff, but it also relies on clinicians having access to the latest technologies and being fully integrated into the research community which generates them.
“EU research programmes and single market legislation have greatly strengthened European cooperation in this area with substantial benefits for both healthcare and employment in the UK. It is a simple fact that Brexit would put all this at risk.”
On Saturday the chairman of the pub chain JD Wetherspoon joined 249 other business leaders in openly backing Brexit. Tim Martin, who founded the chain in 1979, said power was being transferred from member states and concentrated in Brussels. As a result, he said, countries such as Spain and Greece were powerless to address their own economic problems.
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