Brexit may have 'gravest of consequences' for health - MP

By Kate Kelland
FILE PHOTO: Illustration photo shows various medicine pills in their original packaging in Brussels

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - - Britain's looming exit from the EU carries real risks that medicines and healthcare supplies will be delayed, the UK's public spending watchdog said on Friday, and an influential lawmaker said a no-deal Brexit may have the "gravest of consequences".

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government has taken some steps to manage the risks, the National Audit Office (NAO)said in a report, there is still significant work to be done.

Lawmaker Meg Hillier, who chairs parliament's public accounts committee, said the report was "deeply concerning".

The health ministry "still doesn't know whether all stockpiles are in place", she said, has no idea whether social care providers such as nursing homes for the sick and elderly are ready, and is not sure whether freight capacity needed for medical imports will be in place on time.

"If (the) government gets this wrong, it could have the gravest of consequences," Hillier said in a statement about the NAO report. She added that as head of the committee, she had already seen "countless examples of deadlines missed and government failing".

Johnson has vowed to take Britain out of the EU with or without a deal by Oct. 31 - increasing the chance of a sudden departure that will bring trade tariffs and customs checks with the continent for the first time in decades.

The risk is acute for health and social care services, as well as for the pharmaceutical industry, with 37 million packs of medicines imported into Britain from Europe every month.


STOCKPILE

The government's own reasonable worst-case view is that the flow of goods across the channel Europe could be reduced to 40%-60% of normal levels on day one after Brexit.

The Department for Health & Social Care has asked medical suppliers to build up stockpiles of medicines and other essentials and has found extra warehouse capacity for them.

A six-week stockpile of equipment such as gloves, syringes and other medical supplies is 88% complete, the NAO said, but information on other stockpiles is "incomplete".

Drug industry and patient representatives said the report's findings were worrying.

"This report tells us ... that very little thought has been given to securing basic medical supplies such as bedpans and incontinence pads for people in social care in nursing homes," said Alan Boyd of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.

"Bluntly, that means the frail, elderly and most vulnerable could be hit the hardest. That cannot be right."

Aisling Burnand, head of the Association of Medical Research Charities, said the report would cause "anxiety and worry".

"Anxiety for people who are seriously ill or living with a long term condition is unwanted. They have many other things to worry about," she said in a statement.

The Department for Transport last week shortlisted eight companies that could bid to bring in drugs. The contracts would provide capacity equivalent to thousands of trucks per week.

But the audit report said the time was short and warned that not all that freight capacity might be available on Oct. 31.

Richard Torbett a spokesman for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said his members urgently needed detail of how to access to access this medical freight capacity.


(Editing by Giles Elgood and Alison Williams)