The threat to the supply of vital medicines still remains in the event of a no-deal Brexit, according to the National Audit Office (NOA).
It said that with just five weeks to go to 31 October, when the UK is due to leave the EU, ministers still have a “significant amount” of work to do to ensure supplies, with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) lacking full information about levels of stockpiling.
Of the 12,300 medicines currently licensed for use in the UK, around 7,000 come to Britain either from or through the EU – with the vast majority being shipped across the Channel.
According to the government’s “reasonable worst case” scenario, the flow of goods could be cut by 40% to 60% on day one of a no-deal break, taking a year to recover to something close to current levels.
The NOA said: “The department has done a great deal of work to prepare for a no-deal exit. However, there remains a significant amount to do before October 31.
“In the event of a no-deal exit, the department would be working in a highly uncertain environment and operating all the elements of its plan would be a hugely demanding task.”
It added that the additional freight capacity chartered by the government for shipping priority goods across the Channel may not be fully available until the end of November – a month after the UK is supposed to have left.
While the DHSC has said it needs the equivalent of 2,326 additional HGV spaces a week, the NAO said the time was “extremely limited” if the shipping was all to be ready for Brexit day.
The DHSC meanwhile is setting up its own courier service for transporting particularly urgent goods and is renting warehouse space for manufacturers to stockpile medicines and materials for clinical suppliers.
A further concern for the NOA was a lack of information about how many nursing homes and other social care
providers had followed DHSC advice on “robust” contingency planning for a no-deal exit.
The head of the NAO Gareth Davies said the Civil Service had faced an “unprecedented challenge” in preparing for Brexit “in the midst of great uncertainty”.
“In this report I record the progress made by the DHSC, working with others, to secure continuity of supply for both the health and social care sectors should the UK depart without a deal with the EU on October 31,” he said.
“In doing so, I am obliged to point out the work that still needs to be done and the risks that remain.”
The DHSC said “substantial” stockpiles of medicines had been built up and that they were “increasing by the day”.
“We want to reassure patients we are doing everything necessary to make sure they can access the medicines they need after Brexit on October 31,” a spokesman said.
“Combined with other measures, including new transport routes coming online shortly, we can help ensure patients continue to receive the highest quality of care in the same way they do now.”