No-deal Brexit could cause six months of drug shortages and traffic chaos, government warns
‘Significantly reduced access’ at major ports after EU refusal to limit border checks sparks warning six-week drug reserves will not be adequate
Emergency plans to fly in medical supplies have been laid to ensure hospitals remain stocked amid six months of expected chaos at Britain’s channel ports after a no-deal Brexit.
Critical supplies could also be diverted away from channel routes and some drugs may even be rationed to ensure stocks do not run out.
The plans were published as a government assessment suggested a no-deal departure from the EU could mean severe disruption until the end of September 2019 to shipping between Dover and Calais and traffic using the Channel Tunnel.
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Ministers continued to put up a defiant front on Friday, saying they were determined to push ahead with the House of Commons vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, though Downing Street insiders indicated it could still be pulled if efforts to turn rebels fall flat at the weekend.
While MPs secured measures this week that make a no-deal scenario less likely, it is still possible if Ms May’s deal is rejected and parliament fails to opt for any alternative course before 29 March.
Ministers had already told drug manufacturers to build six-week stockpiles in anticipation of Brexit customs disruption, but after the new assessment indicated Brexit disorder could last six months, further measures were deemed necessary.
In a letter to pharmaceutical firms, health secretary Matt Hancock said: “The revised cross-government planning assumptions show that there will be significantly reduced access across the short straits, for up to six months.
“This is very much a worst-case scenario; however, as a responsible government, we have a duty to plan for all scenarios.
“Whilst the six-week medicines stockpiling activities remain a critical part of our UK-wide contingency plan, it is clear that in light of the changed border assumptions described above this will now need to be supplemented with additional action.”
Planes would be chartered for time-sensitive shipments like radioactive isotopes, used in imaging and diagnostic tests, which could be rendered useless if they get stuck in Brexit gridlock.
Vital medicines could be shipped to alternative ports to avoid any chaos on the main cross-Channel routes, while Mr Hancock said the government is also considering plans for chemists to ration drugs to ensure patients can have access to medicines in the event of shortages.
The Department of Health and Social Care began consulting on proposals to allow pharmacists to overrule GP prescriptions and substitute alternative medicines, doses or amounts in the event of shortages.
Some drug companies have already begun stockpiling more than the government recommended levels – Britain’s biggest supplier of insulin, Novo Nordisk, is building up a four-month reserve.
The report also confirms that NHS and social care staff from the EU will have advanced access to apply for settled status through the new Home Office process which is liable to be swamped with applications when it opens generally.
Mike Thompson, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said: “Today’s update on potential border delays for six months in a no-deal scenario is stark. Stockpiling more medicines is not the solution to this problem.”
He added: “With just 16 weeks until the UK leaves the EU, we need the government to take immediate action to open up alternative supply routes between the UK and Europe and tell companies so that they can make plans.”
The Border Delivery Group, a Whitehall coordination group for government departments linked to border issues, held further discussions on Friday, centring on the government’s no-deal planning assumptions.
Mr Hancock defended the government’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit but stressed that the potential problems were a reason to back Theresa May’s plan in the crunch 11 December vote.
The prime minister was coming under growing pressure to delay Tuesday’s vote to give herself time to ask for more concessions from the EU at a Brussels summit at the end of next week.
But Downing Street insiders indicated that the a decision on whether to delay the vote could still be taken as late as Monday.
The government has been accused of running “Project Fear” in a bid to scare MPs into voting for Ms May’s deal, particularly following the publication of twin reports from the Treasury and the Bank of England suggesting the UK economy will be badly hit in a no-deal scenario.
But Boris Johnson ignored the government’s warnings and claimed on Friday that the Brexit deal obtained from Brussels by Ms May is so bad that it is similar to the conditions that might be imposed on the defeated side in a war.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn indicated the party could be willing to delay Brexit in order to secure the right deal for the country.
He said: “If we go into government straight away, we’d start negotiating straight away. If it meant holding things a bit longer to do it, of course.”
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