Government says medicines must be stockpiled for no-deal Brexit on top of Covid-19 pressures

But pharmaceutical industry has warned that sufficient buffer stocks may not be possible by December

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 03 August 2020 16:52 BST
Brexit briefing: How long until the end of the transition period?

The government has written to to medicine suppliers urging them to stockpile drugs for a possible no-deal in EU trade talks at the end of the year – after firms warned that this may not be possible because of the pandemic.

In a letter made public on Monday officials at the health department said the government recognises “that global supply chains are under significant pressure” because of coronavirus, but said the expensive precaution was still necessary.

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, when the UK is due to leave the single market.

Boris Johnson refused to extend the Brexit transition period last month despite disruption caused by coronavirus and the fact the UK is facing a cliff edge at the end of the year.

Flagging trade talks mean it is increasingly likely that Britain will leave the single market without any trade agreement at all, with disruption to trade and supply chains expected.

“Holding additional stock in the UK provides a further buffer against some disruption and we believe, where it’s possible, it’s a valuable part of a robust contingency plan,” the letter, signed by Steve Oldfield, chief commercial officer at the department of health and social care, says.

“To build upon past work and ensure a coordinated approach, we will be asking suppliers to confirm their contingency plans for the end of the [transition period], and in particular the balance between stock-holding in the UK, rerouting away from the short straits and readiness for new customs and border arrangements.

“We recognise that global supply chains are under significant pressure, exacerbated by recent events with Covid-19. However, we encourage companies to make stockpiling a key part of contingency plans, and ask industry, where possible, to stockpile to a target level of six weeks’ total stock on UK soil. DHSC stands ready to support companies with their plans if required and understands that a flexible approach to preparedness may be required that considers a mixture of stockpiling and rerouting plans as necessary.”

But the memo reported earlier in the year from the pharmaceutical industry warned that there would be “less or zero product available in the market to allow for stockpiling a broad range of products” thanks to the pandemic.

It continued: “We would warn against any drastic policies mandating wholesale changes to global supply chains, as this could fundamentally disrupt the supply of medicines for the NHS and patients in other countries.”

Trade talks between the EU and UK have so far delivered little progress, with major sticking points in regulatory alignment, fisheries, justice and police cooperation, and the governance of any deal. The next official round is due to take place in Brussels on 17 August.

After the most recent round of talks EU chief negotiator Michael Barnier said a trade deal was looking “unlikely”, but was still possible of the UK shifted its positions.

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