The government will spend £433m on stockpiling and new freight deals in a bid to stop Britain running out of vital medicines after a potential no-deal Brexit.
The huge sum is part of a £2.1bn ($2.6bn) pot for no-deal planning announced by new UK chancellor Sajid Javid, in his first major spending pledge since taking office.
The opposition Labour party called the funds an “appalling waste” of taxpayers’ money that could be spent on cash-strapped public services, urging the government to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
The escalation of no-deal planning and limited efforts to secure a breakthrough in negotiations with Brussels under new prime minister Boris Johnson have increased expectations of a radical rupture from the EU on 31 October.
Most analysts and the government’s own forecasts suggest a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic for the UK economy, with warnings of recession, spiralling unemployment and prices, a property market crash, legal uncertainty, chaos at borders and even shortages of key goods.
The government will boost stockpiling efforts, seek out warehousing space and hire more freight capacity for medicines, amid fears new border checks and bureaucracy could cause delays and even deter drugs companies from selling to Britain.
A further £344m will be spent on new border and customs operations including hiring 500 new border force officers and support for customs agents, who will help firms comply with new regulations they could face trading from outside the EU.
Business groups like the Federation of Small Business (FSB) are alarmed many exporters have so far failed to carry out even the most basic preparations such as registering for a new number.
Demand for help is expected to soar at the last minute and immediately after Brexit as firms realise they cannot trade without them, and there had been fears customs agents would be overwhelmed.
The chancellor also announced a £138m advertising campaign to encourage firms and the public to prepare for potential disruption.
Another £1bn will be set aside for government departments and the devolved UK administrations if necessary, with total government no-deal planning now reported to add up to £6.3bn.
That is more than the £5.4bn that the government said it contributed to EU budgets in 2017-18, and more than half its entire spending that year for overseas aid (£8.6bn), the environment (£11.4bn), culture (£11.8bn) and housing and utilities (£12.1bn).
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “This government could have ruled out no deal, and spent these billions on our schools, hospitals, and people.”
Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons public accounts committee, said she was sceptical about how the funding could be spent effectively with just three months until the scheduled exit date, and how so many border officials could be hired.
“Just because Boris Johnson is making it sound like he’s fighting a war, with seven-days-a-week meetings in Whitehall, that is not licence to spend taxpayers’ money like water, throwing good money after bad,” said Hillier.