UK Brexit negotiator David Frost and his counterpart Michel Barnier meet for the eighth time © AFP/Getty Images
UK Brexit negotiator David Frost and his counterpart Michel Barnier meet for the eighth time © AFP/Getty Images

Is the public sector prepared for Brexit?

Disruptions experienced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have allowed the public sector to test supply chain resilience ahead of the end of the Brexit transition period, an event was told. 

Chris Cuthell, head of procurement at housing association Accent Group, told delegates at Procurex National the pandemic had taught the organisation they didn’t need to be as worried about the impact of Brexit on supply chains as they had expected. 

“We have seen how the market responded to things like PPE shortages and how UK manufacturers pivoted to start making things around PPE that they’d never done before. That tells me that the interruptions are not likely to be as deep or as long for our supply chain as we were initially worried they would be,” he said. 

“The experience has told us what extreme stresses can do to the supply chain and shown us how the supply chain will respond to them. We can’t fix everything. If you have specialist things and there’s tariffs on components, that could make it expensive and difficult to get them but in the main, there will be some kind of response from the market to fix problems in supply.” 

Also speaking as part of a panel discussion on procurement post Brexit, Michelle van Toop, associate director of procurement and contracting at NHS Leeds Clinical Commissioning Group, said her organisation was “undoubtedly in a better place and better prepared” for Brexit as a result of the pandemic. 

“We've been able to test our business continuity plans quite robustly and discovered the bits that won't work and the bits that we need to revise, so that will put us in a better position for Brexit,” she said.

“None of the business continuity plans I saw prior to the Covid shutdown had any mention of PPE. Everybody was assuming there was a national pandemic stock and clearly that national mitigation didn't work for us so we're able to put other plans in place now for those supply chains that we know are very vulnerable. 

“For instance, we've got a West Yorkshire-wide procurement strategy for PPE with a 90-day stock holding that we're trying to put in case of a second wave over the winter and flu season, with Brexit happening at the same time.” 

Van Toop added the pandemic had most importantly led to better relationships with colleagues in other NHS organisations.

“We actually operate as a system, collaborating on procurement strategies, giving mutual aid when necessary, but actually really focusing on what's best for the populations that we're serving and not what's best for our own organisation.”

Lee Tribe, commercial director at the Home Office, said Brexit may bring some more flexibility into public procurement regulations, which in turn could lead to the growth of the UK industrial base. 

“We learnt through PPE that we have a very diverse global supply chain which didn’t always act in our favour. When you started to look at things such as the rubber manufacturers for gloves, there was a high risk of modern slavery within those supply chains,” he said. 

“We have been talking about things such as air miles, carbon reduction, modern slavery and increasing social value for a long time but they have lacked traction. The pivot into a new world post Brexit allows us to talk about those things and develop some solutions.”

Tina Holland, programme manager – procurement at the Local Government Association, said Brexit could be an opportunity to build in procurement reforms for the public sector. 

“Procurement rules are really helpful as we need to be transparent about how we spend public money. The ability to use procurement to underpin local economic growth for councils is absolutely key. 

“If there is no deal and we've moved to WTO processes, there would be a simplification of processes compared to the Public Contracts Regulations that we have at the moment. It's an opportunity for us to start talking and start doing something that will reform the way we do procurement.” 

David Smith, former commercial director at the Department for Work and Pensions, said the regulations the public sector was currently bound by are good commercial practice.

Smith said these disciplines are unlikely to be entirely dropped, but may just be adapted within the new policy constraints. 

“We are moving into a period of uncertainty but on 1 January or any time thereafter, we're not going to suddenly stop buying from Europe and stop buying from the world and put everything into a UK base because a UK base doesn't exist.

“Our suppliers are worldwide, and they always have been. We need the tactical nous to manoeuvre amongst our suppliers and amongst our contracting in an era where the regulations are still unknown.

“If we've learned anything from Covid, we're learning to operate on the fly. We need to be able to do things quickly and very nimbly. We move into a sort of new procurement world and at the moment we're not sure what that will be, and we're not desperately prepared for it but we will have to be.”

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