Exclusive: The Brexit department said there could be
medicine shortages in a no deal Brexit in an “alarming” meeting
with pharmaceutical and medical industry representatives last
In the meeting, DExEU civil servants said some
medicines might not be available to patients if Britain leaves
the European Union without a deal in March.
The meeting took place two weeks before health
organisations sent a letter to Theresa May’s government
expressing concern that the risk of medicine shortages in a no
deal Brexit is “red.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has asked private
companies to help stockpile medicines.
LONDON — Theresa May’s government refused to rule out medicine
shortages under a no deal Brexit during a confidential meeting
with shocked medical industry representatives last month,
Business Insider can reveal.
Around two dozen representatives from the medical and
pharmaceutical industry were told by civil servants from the
Department for Exiting the European Union, that ministers could
not guarantee that all medicines currently provided by the NHS
will be available to patients in the event of there being no
“They aren’t guaranteeing against medicine shortages in a no deal
— it’s pretty alarming stuff,” an industry figure who attended
the meeting on the week of October 15 told BI.
“The government rep stuck to the line that if all stakeholders do
what is required, then they believe that patients will be
protected. But they weren’t able to guarantee that every
treatment on the NHS will be protected.”
There is a growing concern among pharmaceutical firms and
charities that the UK government is underprepared for the
prospect of leaving the European Union with no deal in March
Last week, a group of health organisations — including the
Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry and Brexit Health
Alliance — wrote to the government expressing concern that
preparations for maintaining drug supplies in a no deal Brexit
were so behind that the risk level ought to be “red,” the most
severe, Politico revealed.
The letter said the health groups “do not believe that the
current medicine supply plans will suffice” and that the UK “will
have widespread shortages” in a no deal Brexit “if we do not
The government has advised pharmaceutical companies to stockpile
six week’s worth of medicines as part of no-deal planning.
However, industry figures are concerned about medicines which
require special conditions like cool temperatures, and medicines
with shorter shelf-lives that cannot be stockpiled and may have
to be flown in.
Martin Sawer, Executive Director at Healthcare Distribution
Association, told MPs last month that it
would take “more than a year” to build large cold chain
(temperature-controlled) warehouses, while Brexit is five months
Pharmaceutical companies are working with the government to scope
airline capacity for getting these drugs to the UK in the event
of a no-deal, but are worried about being in competition with
other industries, like food.
A government spokesperson told BI: “The Government is confident
of reaching a deal with the EU that benefits patients and the
NHS. However, as a responsible Government we are also preparing
for a range of potential outcomes in the unlikely event of a no
“As part of our contingency planning, we continue to work closely
with pharmaceutical companies and storage providers to ensure the
continued supply of critical drug and medicine supplies.”
‘The honest answer is we don’t know’
Jane Summerfield — who leads the UK’s life sciences commercial
regulatory practice — told BI this week that the government was
“still working out” how much capacity was needed to stockpile
medicines, and how to do it.
“They’re far enough down that process to know that additional
capacity is needed, and actions are ongoing to identify
warehousing on both sides of the channel, but there isn’t much
information coming out to actually answer that question. The
honest answer is we don’t know,” Summerfield said.
She explained that while some medicines can be stockpiled for six
weeks as the government has recommended, other “very complex”
medicines cannot, and could be in short supply if there is no
Brexit deal in five months time.
“If it is a medicine like gene therapy, you can’t just stockpile,
that’s not how the product works. If it’s cold chain
(temperature-controlled) storage, you don’t necessarily have the
right capacity and conditions to do that.
“Some have a very short shelf life. So warehousing works for some
clients but others are finding it really difficult.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told ITV’s Robert Peston this
week that the government was building extra “refrigeration
capacity” for stockpiling medicines which require cool
temperatures to prepare for no deal.
Hancock also revealed last month that he has invited private
companies to provide additional storage. “We have issued
today an invitation to tender for additional storage capacity,”
the minister told
Another issue facing pharmaceutical companies is the costly and
time-consuming customs checks that would emerge on the UK-EU
border if there is no Brexit deal next year.
Aline Doussin, a trade lawyer advising firms on Brexit planning,
told BI that “at this stage, there are no solutions to the
customs issues” facing pharmaceutical companies in a no deal
“That [customs] is the question that even us as trade lawyers
cannot answer,” Doussin said.
“We have told clients to get a certified trusted trade scheme
that puts them in the priority queue to get their products moving
faster across customs borders. But that’s the only mitigating
point from a UK perspective.”
Doussin added that HMRC “can hire customs officials and do as
much as it can to make sure goods enter the UK easily” but
ultimately EU member states are obliged to implement EU law at
“If you talk to the French, for instance, they say ‘Brexit for
us, it’s not our issue. Why should we issue so meant customs
officials when we are trying to decrease public service cost?”
Our Brexit Insider Facebook group is the best place for up-to-date news and analysis about Britain’s departure from the EU, direct from Business Insider’s political reporters. Join here.