The government has awarded contracts worth £86.6m to four ferry companies to bring medicines into the UK after Brexit, the Department for Transport has announced.
The deals are the first to be signed through DfT's framework put in place this summer for government departments and other public bodies to procure extra freight capacity after Brexit.
The first batch of contracts will not see the government flying in urgent medical supplies after Brexit, despite the framework making this a possibility for the first time. The shortlist of companies that can bid for tenders via the framework, announced last month, includes six ferry operators, one rail company and one airline.
Two of the four companies that were successful in this round – Brittany Ferries and DFDS – were awarded freight contracts at the end of last year ahead of the UK’s planned exit from the EU on 29 March. DfT was forced to pay the two firms a total of £51.4m when the deals were scrapped after the extension of the Article 50 deadline to 31 October.
The remaining two contracts have gone to P&O Ferries and Stena Line.
The contracts will run for six months, whether the UK leaves the EU with or without a deal.
If the UK and EU agree an extension to the Brexit process beyond 31 October, the government could pay termination fees of £11.5m to cut the contracts short.
DfT has said the routes will avoid the busiest ports, which it expects to be most at risk if disruption. The ferries will therefore run between Teesport, Hull, Killingholme, Felixstowe, Harwich, Tilbury, Portsmouth and Poole in the UK and Cherbourg, Caen, Le Havre, Zeebrugge, Hook of Holland, Rotterdam, Europort and Vlaardingen in the EU.
The shortlisted companies will continue to bid for contracts in mini-competitions run through the framework by departments, NHS trusts and other bodies seeking emergency freight services over the next four years. DfT has said up to £300m of deals could be signed over that period. The vast majority – 91% – of the extra freight capacity has been earmarked for health and social-care supplies.
The announcement came after England’s outgoing chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies warned that delays to medical supplies may be unavoidable in a no-deal Brexit scenario and could lead to patient deaths.
"We cannot guarantee that there will not be shortages, not only in medicines, but technology and gadgets. There may be deaths, we can't guarantee there won't,” Davies told BBC Radio 4's Today programme last week.
Her comments echoed a warning by the National Audit Office that the government could not guarantee that a no-deal Brexit would not disrupt medical supplies.
Announcing the deals, transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “Our decisive action means freight operators will be ready and waiting to transport vital medicines into the country from the moment we leave.”