Scotland’s health secretary has told UK ministers their “unprecedented” plans to stockpile, warehouse and fast-track medicines into the UK if there is a no-deal Brexit are “not normal or sensible”.
Jeane Freeman has published a letter to UK Government health secretary Matt Hancock accusing him of ‘knowingly’ risking vital health care services and warning disruption would bring a ‘plausible risk to human life’.
It comes as the UK’s public spending watchdog says the government still has a ‘significant amount’ of work to do to ensure drugs can get into the country if there is a no-deal departure.
In a letter sent earlier this week, Ms Freeman disputes Mr Hancock’s claim that medicines supplies will ‘continue exactly as normal through a no-deal Brexit’.
“The Scottish Government,” she writes, “will not indulge any suggestion that the present circumstances allow the health and social care system to continue as normal.”
She also says: “A wide range of preparations unprecedented in peacetime are being made for a country-wide civil emergency that involves a plausible risk to human life. This is not normal, or sensible.”
Preparations detailed in today’s National Audit Office (NAO) report include a government-run courier service for the most vital drugs and securing refrigerated warehouse space where pharmaceutical companies can store sensitive medicines.
The NAO does not technically cover Scotland, but Whitehall’s department of health is responsible for ensuring medicines supplies continue after Brexit. The auditors go on to say ministers do not know whether pharmaceutical suppliers have stockpiled enough medicines. The report says a ‘great deal of work’ has been done but warns coping with the disruption would be ‘hugely demanding’. Around 7,000 of the 12,000 medicines available on prescription come from or through the EU.
The ‘reasonable’ worst-case scenario being planned for is a 40% to 60% drop in the number of cross-border lorry trips and returning to current levels in a year. This would be caused by hauliers not having the correct documentation or approvals to pass quickly through Dover or Folkstone. The UK Government has been block-booking HGVs for the cross-channel shipments in advance of any disruption. Warehouse space for 50,000 pallets of drugs will be made available for pharmaceutical manufacturers to stockpile drugs. Around £50m has been spent so far – with another £40m planned.
But auditors warn ministers have no way of knowing how many lorries will be ready for new customs arrangements at the borders. Estimates suggest as many as 85% of HGVs using the main channel crossings will not be ready for new processes.
They add time to bring in the remaining freight capacity is “extremely limited”. Responding to the NAO report, Ms Freeman said: “We’ve repeatedly warned the UK Government about the potential dangers to medicines supply from a no-deal Brexit. Today’s report from the National Audit Office makes clear that this danger is real.
“This report includes information the Scottish Government has repeatedly asked for, and states quite clearly that there is a ‘risk of delays to supplies for health and social care’ in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“Nothing could more clearly demonstrate the threat posed by the UK Government’s policy of leaving the EU, come what may, on October 31st – or more clearly underline the absolute need to avoid that outcome.
“It is staggering that work on this scale to secure supplies of medicines and other medical resources should even need to be undertaken – that is entirely the result of the UK Government’s reckless approach to Brexit.
“The Scottish Government is working hard to ensure we are as prepared as possible for all scenarios we might face. Sadly, the responsibility for a substantial plan sits with the UK Government.”