Tory leadership paralysis risks shortages of essential drugs in a no-deal Brexit, warn medical firms

‘No guidance’ has been issued since Chris Grayling’s notorious ferry contracts were axed – despite risk UK will crash out of EU in October

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 22 June 2019 17:58
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Medical firms fear the political paralysis created by the Tory leadership race will leave the NHS short of essential drugs after a no-deal Brexit, because no proper planning is taking place.

No fresh information has been issued, they have protested, following the axing of Chris Grayling’s ferry contracts – despite the growing risk that the UK will crash out of the EU on 31 October.

One trade group has protested there had been no “clear direction to industry”, while a second warned of delays because “everything needs ministerial sign off”.

The Independent has been told of growing frustration at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) that the Department for Transport (DfT) is refusing to make a decision about whether to return to the ferry plan, which is designed to ensure critical imports can reach these shores.

An MP investigating the situation suggested the indecision was because the DfT had been “burned by the chaos” that followed the transport secretary's botched attempt to bolster supplies.

That episode cost taxpayers a total of £83m in cancellation fees and a legal payout – having included a contract with a firm that had no ferries.

The impasse was strongly criticised by Sarah Wollaston, the head of the Commons health committee, who attacked health ministers for insisting everything remained on track.

“My committee keeps being told ‘nothing to see here’, even as whistleblowers reveal the worries they have about medical shortages as we get closer to a no deal,” she said.

“The Department for Transport may not want to go near anything that looks like the ferry contracts that went so wrong last time – but somebody has got to do this contingency planning.”

Martin Sawer, the director of the Healthcare Distribution Agency, said: “Everything needs ministerial sign off. Until we have a new prime minister, with a new team, there is danger it will delay things being approved.”

The plan to use ferries was unveiled 113 days in advance last time – but there will be a maximum of 101 days to go to the Halloween deadline by the time a new prime minister is in place in late July, the Brexit committee was told.

“We saw the challenges last time in the procurement and supply of additional ferry capacity to additional routes,” said Steve Bates, the head of the BioIndustry Association.

“It’s getting very, very short – and we’re getting less time this time, with no guidance as yet published to companies on what the plans are for ferries this time round.”

Mr Bates said there had been no “clear direction to industry”, adding: “I’m very uncertain about ferries. That is a real challenge, because that was a crucial part of the planning last time round.”

The DfT has acknowledged that any decision to seek new ferry contracts will be taken by Theresa May’s replacement.

He will not be in place until 22 July, or soon afterwards, and will be plunged immediately into a no-confidence vote at Westminster, which Labour has vowed to table.

Mr Johnson has been accused of failing to set out a convincing plan to avoid a no-deal Brexit on Halloween night, given the EU’s refusal to renegotiate the rejected agreement.

During the recent TV debate, he insisted he was the only candidate who will could be trusted to “deliver Brexit on time rather than kicking the can again”, saying: “We have to get out on 31 October.”

Mr Bates said the original ferries had been lined up because of fears of delays of more than six months on the Dover-Calais route – beyond the six months’ worth of supplies being stockpiled.

He warned the situation was “beyond the control of the Department of Health” and pointed to the recent retirement of the head of the government’s Brexit border delivery group as another worrying sign.

Pat McFadden, a Labour member of the committee, asked whether the inaction was because ministers had been “burned by the chaos over the ferry contracts that took place in the run up to March”.

Mr Grayling was engulfed by controversy over the pre-Christmas contracts, including a £13.8m deal with “start-up firm” Seaborne Freight, which had no ships. It was later scrapped.

The transport secretary was forced to concede a £33m payment to Eurotunnel, over its exclusion from the arrangement – and then axe the other contracts at a cost of around £50m.

But Ms Wollaston added: “My preference is to rule out no deal, but while it remains a distinct possibility there is one worse than wasting this money, which is to end up with medical shortages.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Our priority is for all patients to continue to have access to medicines and medical products when we leave the EU.

“We are working with industry and other stakeholders to continue robust no deal contingency planning for supply after we leave on 31 October.”

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