The DfT cancelled contracts with DFDS, Brittany and Seaborne ferries to provide extra freight capacity earlier this year © DENIS CHARLET/AFP/Getty Images
The DfT cancelled contracts with DFDS, Brittany and Seaborne ferries to provide extra freight capacity earlier this year © DENIS CHARLET/AFP/Getty Images

UK needs 'express freight service' for medical supplies

15 August 2019

The UK government is to spend £25m on ensuring that vital medicines and medical supplies can be imported at short notice, as part of its Brexit preparations.

A contract notice to set up an express freight service to deliver urgently needed supplies was announced today by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

The £25m contract will help to strengthen Brexit preparations and “support continuity of supply when the UK leaves the EU on 31 October”, the DHSC said.

“The service is intended to deliver small parcels of medicines or medical products on a 24-hour basis, with additional provision to move larger pallet quantities on a 2- to 4-day basis. The service will be available to the whole of the UK,” it added.

While the majority of goods will be standard medicines and products, the new service will also bring in temperature-controlled medicines if needed.

Health minister Chris Skidmore said: “I want to ensure that when we leave the EU at the end of October, all appropriate steps have been taken to ensure frontline services are fully prepared. That’s why we are stepping up preparations and strengthening our already extremely resilient contingency plans."

He added: “This express freight service sends a clear message to the public that our plans should ensure supply of medical goods remains uninterrupted as we leave the EU.”

The DHSC is leading the procurement exercise for the contract and the deadline for proposals is 21 August 2019, while the service must be “fully operational by 24 October 2019 - a week before Britain is due to depart the EU.

Responding to the news, Dr David Wrigley, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association, told PA: “It is beyond alarming that the future delivery of medicine and medical supplies in the UK could be dependent on a freight service - for which the supplier hasn't yet even been appointed.”

He added: “This latest announcement from the Government is a further indication of the chaos that will lay in store for the NHS and patients in the event of a no-deal Brexit and highlights just how costly this will be.”

And Gus Tugendhat, founder of Tussell, a data provider on UK government contract, told the BBC: “It's good to see DHSC continuing to follow due process for this procurement, but with the services now due to be operational only a week before the Brexit deadline it's undeniably a tight time frame.”

This comes just weeks after it emerged that the Department for Transport spent over £85m on a rushed procurement process to award ferry contracts with DFDS and Brittany Ferries to secure extra freight capacity. This included a £33m settlement with Eurotunnel who took legal action against the department. 

It was also criticised for awarding a £13.8m contract to Seaborne Ferries, which was discovered to have not run ferry services before.

Last month, the Public Accounts Committee condemned the “rushed and risky” procurement process and warned: “There is a real risk that the short time left before 31 October will force the department into further high- risk procurements, which it wants to avoid."

It added: “Given the lead time needed to put ferry capacity in place, which the department says can take a minimum of three months, any new procurement process would need to begin very soon.”

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