Audit body warns of risks to medicine supplies in no-deal Brexit, despite preparations

Amid the political chaos and bitter recriminations in Westminster in the build-up to Brexit, there is still a risk of delays to health and social care supplies if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.

An independent Parliamentary body, the NAO audits central government departments, government agencies, and non-departmental public bodies as well as assessing value for money audits of public policy.

In a report published today the NAO reviewed the Department for Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) preparations to ensure a steady flow of supplies for the sector when it leaves the EU, and acknowledged the considerable efforts made so far to mitigate the impact of a no-deal Brexit.

Although the NAO said there are huge uncertainties about the impact of a no-deal Brexit, it noted the government’s “reasonable worst case” assumption that flow of goods across the Channel could be reduced to 40-60% of current levels at day one.

According to the NAO, suppliers said that they had only found shipping arrangements away from the short channel crossings for 25% of medicine product lines, as of 20th September.

According to the NAO, suppliers have at least six weeks’ stock for 72% of product lines, and 91% of additional freight capacity procured by the government so far is for priority supplies to the health and social care sector.

Of the 12,300 medicines used in the UK, the DHSC said that around 7,000 come from or via the EU.

The NAO also noted the DHSC efforts so far – obtaining warehouse space and encouraging suppliers including pharma to build stockpiles of medicine.

Other medical goods have been stockpiled, but the DHSC does not yet know how many providers have followed its advice.

The NAO highlighted other issues too – the Department for Transport is procuring freight capacity to put in place for 31st October when the UK is set to leave the EU.

The department’s aim is to have as much freight capacity for priority goods in place by 31st October, and all of it by 30th November at the latest.

But despite the recent efforts there is a risk that traders, including medicine suppliers, will not be ready for new border processes by 31st October, the NAO concluded.

Dr Richard Torbett, executive director of commercial policy, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), said: “Pharmaceutical companies have been doing everything in their power to prepare for Brexit, including increasing stocks and planning alternative supply routes where possible. But as the NAO sets out, some things are outside of their control.

“We have been working closely with the government on the contingency plans outlined in this report. Prioritising medicines on Government-secured freight capacity is an important part of these plans. We reiterate the need for companies to get the detail of how to access this capacity as soon as possible.

“Securing a deal remains the best way to protect patients.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We want to reassure patients we are doing everything necessary to make sure they can access the medicines they need after Brexit on 31 October, whatever the circumstances.

“As the NAO recognises, the Department of Health and Social Care, pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers have mounted an unprecedented response in preparing for Brexit, with substantial stockpiles of medicines, which are increasing by the day. Combined with other measures, including new transport routes coming online shortly, we can help ensure patients continue to receive the highest quality of care in the same way they do now.”

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