Watchdog Warns of Continuing Health Risks of No-deal Brexit

Peter Russell

September 27, 2019

Leaving the EU without a deal presents a risk to the NHS and social care sector despite an enormous amount of work by the Government to manage the risk, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) concluded.

The spending watchdog warned there was still "significant work to be done" by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in ensuring there was sufficient freight capacity to carry priority medicines and medical products.

The Government also needed to ensure that nursing home providers were ready for a 'no-deal' Brexit, and improve its understanding of preparedness by medical suppliers.

'Significant Challenge'

The NAO report, Exiting the EU: Supplying the Health and Social Care Sectors , highlighted the UK's dependence on imports, with 7000 of 12,300 prescription-only and over-the-counter medicines coming from or via the EU.

It said that while it was impossible to predict what would happen at the border, a no-deal Brexit would pose a "significant challenge".

The Government's own worst case scenario, revealed earlier this month in a leak of the Yellowhammer document, anticipated a 40% traffic flow reduction on the short channel routes, with significant disruption lasting 6 months.

The NAO report said this assumption underpinned current planning, and the DHSC had taken steps to respond in three main areas.

These were:

  • Building up stockpiles and obtaining warehouse capacity

  • Re-routing supplies from the main cross channel routes and procuring extra freight capacity

  • Increasing the DHSC's ability to monitor the situation and respond

The assessment showed that the DHSC's 6-week stockpile of equipment and supplies currently stood at 88%. However, supplies of goods other than medicines for social care providers had not been similarly stockpiled. Also, although the DHSC had asked nursing home providers to adopt robust contingency planning for a possible no-deal Brexit, the department had no idea how many had followed the advice and whether patient needs could be met.

Suppliers of medicines and medical products were expected to use 91% of the extra freight capacity bought for Government-wide use. However, the NAO report said it was doubtful whether all the capacity would be in place by the current EU exit day of 31st October. It could take another month before all the planned extra freight transport came on-stream.

Despite Government efforts, there was a risk that traders, including medicine suppliers, will not be ready for new border processes by the end of October, the report warned.

'Alarm Bells'

The NHS Confederation said it was reassured that the Government had put in place detailed preparations for supplying the health service in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

However, Dr Layla McCay, director of international relations, said: "The Government still lacks insight into the level of readiness of around a third of the UK's medicine and medical device/clinical consumable suppliers, and freight procurement is clearly working to very tight timescales without margin for unpredictable error.

"Alarm bells should be ringing loudly about the fact the Government knows very little about the readiness of the 24,000 social care providers in England alone.

"This report is also a reminder that the effects of Brexit cannot be managed by the UK by itself. Decisions made by the EU, such as what sort of customs checks to immediately impose on medical goods, will have a significant impact on delays on both sides of the border."

Prof Donal O'Donoghue of the Royal College of Physicians commented: "One thing is clear about a no-deal Brexit and that is that no amount of preparation can fully eradicate the risks it presents to patient safety and protecting the nation’s health.

"Yes, the NHS has done a great deal of preparation and planning but the Royal College of Physicians shares the National Audit Office's concerns that putting plans into action will be extremely demanding.

"On that basis, it is impossible for me and my colleagues to reassure patients that their health and care won't be negatively impacted by the UK leaving the EU without a deal."

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