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NHS could face shortages of 'critical medicines' soon after a no-deal Brexit

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Firms warn of medicine shortages. Photo: Press Association

Suppliers to the NHS have warned Britain could face shortages of some critical medicines soon after a no-deal Brexit.

Less common medicines could be the most likely to be at immediate risk if the next prime minister takes Britain out of the EU without a deal, causing widespread disruption to supply chains.

The head of a trade body for pharmaceutical wholesalers, who together distribute more than 90% of all NHS medicines, warned it relied on a “just-in-time” model similar to the car industry.

Martin Sawer, executive director of the Healthcare Distribution Association (HDA), said his 10 member companies had only about two weeks’ worth of stock available at any one time.

Giving evidence to parliament’s Brexit select committee on Wednesday, Sawer told MPs his members expected a no-deal Brexit to mean “some critical shortages” in less widely used medicines.

Several Conservative leadership candidates including Boris Johnson have suggested they would be willing to leave the EU without a deal, pushing the pound’s value down to five-month lows.

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Sawer said: “We would expect medicine shortages and a lot of price rises for the NHS to happen pretty quickly, and some shortages in constituencies around most of the UK.

“In medicine, you have to get it 100% right. It’s not like supermarket shelves or car parks. You can delay that. You can’t delay it for critical medicines.”

He said Britain had “months” of insulin stockpiled, and said more common, well-known products would not “necessarily” see problems because of higher stocks.

But he said he could not criticise the government for its preparations, saying the NHS and department of health had carried out “fantastic” planning with a dedicated NHS shortages team.

He predicted manufacturers on the other side of the world may no longer see sales of generic, less common medicines to the UK outside the EU as commercially viable, unless prices increase.

READ MORE: The big hole in Boris Johnson’s Brexit trade deal plans

Tory leadership contender Boris Johnson. Photo: Yui Mok/PA via AP

Steve Bates, chief executive of the BioIndustry Association, also warned a disorderly no-deal Brexit would “negatively impact” patients and public health.

He told MPs many ingredients could be created in one country, turned into a drug in another and packaged in another across Europe.

Bates warned new checks or trade barriers at each step could hurt supply chains, and suggested it was too late to plan a new system to prepare for no-deal now before an October departure.

“Changing any of this at speed is very difficult. The idea new things can be done in the timeframes we’re looking at is impossible,” he said.

“Building a regulated manufacturing process does take years. We’re looking at 130-odd days to the deadline - moving things at that pace is un-doable.”

He also said the government had still offered firms “no guidance” on its new emergency planning for critical supplies, after it had to cancel its previous ferry contracts for the former March deadline.

READ MORE: Why a no-deal Brexit could mean more bureaucracy for many manufacturers