Health chiefs unsure of levels of Brexit drug stockpiling

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) does not know how many suppliers followed advice to stockpile medicines in preparation for a no-deal Brexit, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

The DHSC asked pharmaceutical suppliers to ensure they could continue supply through a combination of stockpiling common medicines and securing alternative routes into the UK.

However, an NAO report found the department had “incomplete information” about the level of stockpiled goods ahead of the EU departure date of 31 October. 

The NAO said the DHSC was surveying its suppliers to determine their progress. On 20 September 2019, suppliers reported that 72% of medicine product lines had at least six weeks’ worth of supplies stockpiled and a quarter had secured freight capacity away from the short Channel crossings.

Around 7,000 of the 12,300 prescription and over-the-counter medicines used in the UK come from or via the EU, the department estimated.

The DHSC confirmed its own stockpile of equipment and supplies for the NHS, including gloves and syringes, was 88% complete. 

Social care providers such as nursing homes were advised to put in place “robust contingency plans” for the possible implications of no deal. However, the DHSC does not know how many providers followed its advice.

The report reviewed the department’s preparations on securing extra freight capacity to ensure the supply of vital medicines.

It cited the government’s Operation Yellowhammer document, which outlined “reasonable worst-case” scenarios in a no-deal Brexit. 

The government estimated the flow of goods across the Channel could be reduced to 40-60% of current levels on day one, lasting for up to three months. 

While a procurement, led by the Department for Transport (DfT), is underway, the NAO said “it might not be possible to have all the freight capacity available from 31 October”.

“The DfT’s aim is to have as much of the freight capacity for priority goods as possible in place by 31 October, and all of it by 30 November at the latest,” it added. 

Last week, transport secretary Grant Shapps announced eight firms had been appointed to the freight procurement framework and will be able to bid to provide additional capacity.

The DfT said the framework “will help speed up procurement processes”.

The DHSC has started the procurement of its own dedicated courier services to pick up urgent medicines and supplies direct from manufacturers in Europe and deliver them to where they are needed in the UK. The initial contract would be for 12 months, with the opportunity to extend for another year. 

“The department estimates the total value of its dedicated freight service contracts at £25m. It expects to pay £3.9m of this, with the rest of the cost met by companies using the service.”

The NAO added there is still a risk that suppliers are not sufficiently aware of new border processes. 

It added trade bodies in the sector had express concern over “the quality of practical information from government on the precise border processes that will operate after 31 October, as well as the need for clarity about how the government-secured freight capacity will operate”.

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