Medicines coming into the country from the EU after Brexit could be delayed if the UK leaves the union without a deal on 31 October, the National Audit Office has warned.
The Department for Health and Social Care has completed an “enormous” amount of contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit, but there is still a lot of work remaining, the public-spending watchdog said in a report today.
It said there was “extremely limited” time remaining to put the extra freight capacity that will be needed to mitigate any potential disruption to imports, and that the department did not have a clear idea of how far industry suppliers had progressed with their no-deal preparations.
Both DHSC and the Department for Transport are making arrangements for extra freight crossings between the UK and EU to transport critical goods that could otherwise be delayed in a no-deal scenario. The vast majority – 91% – of the government’s extra freight capacity has been earmarked to carry health and social-care supplies, the NAO said.
But the auditor warned that there was “extremely limited” time for freight to be secured via the framework put in place by DfT, which opened its first competitions for contracts last week. The NAO noted that the procurement process for the framework was launched nearly three weeks behind schedule, on 30 July, meaning that “the time available for mobilisation has been reduced”. DfT’s market testing showed that it may not be possible to have all the freight capacity needed in time for 31 October, so aims to have all of it in place by 30 November at the latest. The first contracts will be awarded on 12 October.
Of the 12,300 medicines licensed for use in the UK, an estimated 7,000 come from or via the EU. More than half the clinical consumables the UK uses come from or via the EU, with the vast majority coming via the short Channel crossings. Half of all supplies for clinical trials come from or via the EU, with half of those travelling via the Channel crossings.
DHSC expects its own £25m courier service for time-critical goods including medicines and organs for transplants to be ready for testing by 24 October – more than seven weeks after its original planned deadline of 1 September.
As well as organising transport to import medicines, DHSC has told pharmacy suppliers to build up stockpiles of medicines. But the NAO report found the department does not have a complete picture of the level of stockpiles in place. DHSC is reliant on private suppliers to build up stockpiles, and can only advise them to do so rather than instructing them.
As of 20 September, suppliers told the department they had stockpiled a six-week supply for 72% of medicine products by this date. The total value of stockpiled supplies is expected to grow to £95m before 31 October.
And the report found there was still a risk that suppliers would not fully understand the border processes that would be put in place after a no-deal Brexit.
The department has also created its own stockpile of some of the medical devices and clinical consumables most frequently used in the NHS. As of 20 September, around 88% of its planned stockpile was in place, with a total value of £85m, and it had ordered a further £10m of supplies.
The NAO also found that DHSC did not know how many social-care providers had followed the advice it has issued this year on preparing for a no-deal Brexit, or how prepared they were. In August, the department told providers they should allow up to five days for supplies to be delivered in a no-deal Brexit – five times the normal 24 hours – but should not stockpile supplies.
Since 2018, DHSC has spent £50.1 million on the Continuity of Supply Programme – the umbrella for its efforts to maintain supplies in a no-deal Brexit scenario – and has committed to spending a further £37.2m by the end of next March.
The department has further contingency funds worth £281.5m set aside, and the Treasury will provide the Department for Transport with £150m to secure extra capacity from October onwards.
The warning comes after health secretary Matt Hancock said last month said he could "guarantee" his department had plans in place "to make sure that the NHS will be prepared whatever the Brexit scenario".
In an interview with ITV's Good Morning Britain programme, Hancock said there were "full plans in place to deliver the unhindered supply of medicines and to make sure the NHS runs as effectively as it does today through any Brexit scenario".
The NAO said it had so far been able to determine whether DHSC’s spending represented value for money “given the rapid pace” of the work, but said it would be auditing the figures in future.