NHS cannot be 'confident' about medicine supplies after a no-deal Brexit, senior official admits

Rob Merrick

England’s most senior health official says he cannot be “confident” that essential medicines will still be available after a no-deal Brexit – describing the task as “extremely difficult”.

Maintaining supplies would be “very complex” if the UK crashes out of the EU, Sir Chris Wormald told MPs, adding: “I never use words like confident.”

Sir Chris, the department of health's permanent secretary, warned there were also major concerns about staff shortages and the treatment of British travellers to the EU after Brexit.

“Those are the three things that keep me awake on this subject,” he said – telling the inquiry that was the case whether the UK and the EU strike a withdrawal deal or not.

The comments came despite Theresa May, a few hours later, insisting the department was working to ensure “we have plans in place” to keep medicines flowing, even in the absence of a deal.

At the same inquiry, the boss of HM Customs and Revenue also warned he “can't tell you it will all be fine” at Britain's borders if no Brexit agreement is reached.

Jon Thompson said his French counterparts would not speak to him about the checks they would introduce – with knock-on delays and queues at UK ports – because all negotiations go through Brussels.

It was revealed in July that the government had asked drug firms, to stockpile six weeks of extra supplies, although Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, insisted that should not “scare people”.

At the meeting of the Commons Brexit committee, Sir Chris was asked whether he was “confident that the supply of essential medicines will be maintained in the event of no deal”.

After declining to say he was, Sir Chris said his department was “pleased” with the response of pharmaceutical firms, but added: “It’s a very complex market and a very complex supply chain

“As no-one can really predict exactly what will happen, there will be decisions we will have to make along the way.”

Sir Chris added that it would be “extremely difficult” to guarantee that all supplies would be fully maintained.

Meanwhile, Mr Thompson confirmed that the UK would, in the short-term, keep its borders open, because there was “no reason to believe there were different risks from French wine or Spanish tomatoes”.

But he admitted the UK was “in the hands of the French”, who would decide whether to introduce checks at Calais and other ports – inevitably triggering tailbacks on the English side of the Channel.

“We don’t know how Calais might behave,” Mr Thomson said, adding: “They won’t have a conversation at all.”

And Bernadette Kelly, permanent secretary at the department for transport, refused to echo Chris Grayling’s “categorical assurance” that flights will not be grounded – saying only that the chances were “very low”.

Asked if contracts had been signed for portable toilets for lorry drivers held up on motorways in the south east, she told MPs “necessary arrangements” were being made.