Medical devices in operating theatre

Government prepares to stockpile medical supplies for no-deal Brexit

Image credit: Dreamstime

The health and social care secretary has told MPs that the government is considering stockpiling medical devices, drugs and other supplies as a precaution against the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.

Bodies including the British Medical Association – the union of doctors – has warned that Brexit will have a negative impact on the health sector and the union has also formally endorsed a referendum on the final deal. Changes that could impact the health sector include likely restrictions on the right to reside for healthcare professionals, access to European research programmes and trade of vital medical devices and other supplies.

Last year, Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said that there was no contingency planning for a hard Brexit within the services. Earlier this month, he confirmed that the NHS was indeed making “extensive” plans to ensure that the supply of essential medical products would continue in the event of a hard Brexit.

The minister has now become the first government representative to confirm these plans.

According to Matt Hancock, who has been health and society care secretary for two weeks, the government is considering working with industry to stockpile medical supplies in the event that the UK leaves the EU without a trade deal. Hancock stressed that he was confident that a Brexit deal would be reached, but that it was “responsible” to prepare for different outcomes.

Questioned by the health select committee, Hancock said that this preparation included the option of working with industry to stockpile medical devices, drugs and other supplies in a worst-case, no-deal Brexit scenario.

“Any responsible government needs to prepare for a range of outcomes, including the unlikely scenario of a no-deal Brexit. Since I have arrived in the department, I’ve asked this work to accelerate and I’ve met with industry leaders to discuss it,” he said. “We are working right across government to ensure that the health sector and the industry are prepared and that people’s health will be safeguarded in the event of a no-deal Brexit.”

“This includes the chain of medical supplies, vaccines, medical devices, clinical consumables, blood products and I have asked the department to work up options for stockpiling by industry.”

“We are working with the industry for the potential need for stockpiling in the event of a no-deal Brexit,” he added. He said that the government would be focusing on medicines with a short shelf life which could prove most difficult to provide if there were to be sudden restrictions placed on imports.

Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “We need a Brexit deal which puts patients first, but now we know that the NHS is having to stockpile medicines because of this government’s chaotic handling of Brexit. This is the terrifying reality of this government’s failure to prioritise the NHS in the Brexit negotiations.”

“NHS patients and their families need urgent reassurances from ministers about how they’re going to avoid this doomsday scenario.”

Hancock’s appearance before the health committee follows a statement by new Brexit secretary Dominic Raab that the government will be making plans to ensure that food supplies do not run dry in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Earlier this week, the head of Amazon UK warned Raab that the company was preparing for rapidly escalating “civil unrest” following a possible no-deal Brexit.

During his appearance before the health committee, Hancock was also asked about official backing of Babylon’s “GP At Hand” service, which allows users to have GP consultations on the phone at any time of the day. According to Babylon, its artificially intelligent chatbot is as effective as GPs at giving health advice, although GPs have disputed these claims.

The service has been accused of “cherry picking” healthy and young patients, putting excess strain on NHS GPs and automatically re-registering patients at a different GP surgery. Health committee chair and former GP Sarah Wollaston also warned that the app could be missing symptoms of deadly conditions such as meningitis and asked Hancock to emphasise safety.

“He will know there is no regulator prospectively examining the safety and effectiveness of diagnostic app in use in the NHS,” she said. Hancock said that while he understood some concerns, it was important to introduce this sort of technology to the NHS in a way that supports the NHS as a whole to improve care.

“The wrong solution would be to say: ‘These new technologies have no place, they are disrupting things’. The right thing to do would be to say: ‘These new technologies are disrupting things, how do we make sure the rules work in the future?’”

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