Brexit: NHS put on no-deal planning alert, letter reveals

Hospital chiefs have been asked to prepare health service for potential disruption from end of 2020

Adam Forrest
Thursday 24 September 2020 16:06 BST
Michael Gove says police will patrol Kent border

NHS hospitals have been told to start preparing for the UK to leave the EU single market and customs union without a deal at the end of 2020.

Chief executives of hospitals across England have been put on alert and asked to get the health service ready for potential disruption following the Brexit transition period.

Hospitals have been asked to identify a “senior responsible officer” for no-deal preparations in the letter sent out by Professor Keith Willett — the NHS official in charge of planning for the UK’s exit.  

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove this week admitted the UK faces significant disruption at the border from 1 January, and health experts have warned of the risk in shortages of vital medicines.

Prof Willett wrote to hospitals on 16 September and said he wanted to make sure they had “operational readiness and response structure” in place to cope with the transition.

“We are requesting that you now identify your named UK end of transition SRO [senior responsible officer] in each NHS organisation and that they work with the existing incident team,” he stated in the letter shared with The Independent.

Prof Willett also said he expected his team to set out an “appropriate operational response” to help NHS England manage the UK’s exit by October.

He recently resumed his Brexit planning job, despite already having a role as the director in charge of emergency planning for the coronavirus pandemic across the NHS.  

Last year he led a 200-strong team in preparing the health service for Brexit, before Boris Johnson forged a withdrawal agreement with the EU.

Mark Dayan, the Nuffield Trust’s Brexit programme lead, said: “This letter reveals just how seriously the NHS are taking the potential disruption to the health service to come at the end of the year.  

“We get three quarters of our medicines and 90 per cent of medical devices from or through the EU’s single market,” he added. “The UK government has proposed some steps that would improve the picture somewhat as part of a deal, but it’s not at all clear whether they’re succeeding in negotiating these.”

The government has warned of disruption getting goods in and out from 1 January
The government has warned of disruption getting goods in and out from 1 January (PA)

Last month the government wrote to medicine suppliers urging them to stockpile drugs for a possible no-deal scenario — after firms warned that this may not be possible because of the pandemic.

In June, a pharmaceutical industry memo said original stockpiles meant for no deal had been “used up entirely” and that it might not be possible to replenish them before December.

The Nuffield Trust’s Mr Dayan added: “Preparing for leaving the single market and a second wave of coronavirus at the same time is going to be very difficult for NHS trust leaders and Whitehall officials alike. 

“If these happen at the same time as a difficult winter and a big backlog of planned care, we could be in for some fairly desperate months in the health service.”

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