The agency in charge of supplying products to the NHS in Scotland is preparing for “severe disruption” if the UK leaves the European Union (EU) without a deal.
NHS National Services Scotland (NSS) is getting ready for breakdowns in the provision of medicine, blood, food and medical equipment for Scotland’s NHS if there is a no-deal Brexit at the end of October.
According to its annual procurement report, the agency has stockpiled between four to eight weeks worth of supplies.
The Scottish Government, Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Royal College of Nursing said NSS was right to make contingency plans but called the UK government’s Brexit policy “reckless” and “chaotic”.
The UK government has said it will leave the EU by 31 October whether it is able to reach a deal or not – although opposition parties in Westminster are trying to prevent this.
In its latest annual report, NSS said the Scottish Government had asked its national procurement agency to liaise with the English Department of Health and Social Care to develop a contingency plan for a no-deal Brexit.
Initially, this plan was just for medical devices and clinical consumables – products like bandages, syringes and scalpels. It was then extended to cover medicines, foods and the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service.
The plan involves “enhanced national stock holding” of products, and there are said to be enough supplies to cover between four to eight weeks.
A UK government report leaked in August said “significant disruption” to cross-Channel trade could last up to six months with trucks facing border delays of up to two and a half days.
These delays are expected because a no-deal Brexit will increase the amount of paperwork which needs to be done at the border.
To get round potential delays for trucks crossing the English Channel, the Scottish procurement agency will use dedicated NHS shipment channels to import its products by air and ship.
A system called the ‘National Supply Disruption Response’ has also been expanded “to cope effectively with the likely increased frequency of severe disruption events affecting supply to NHS Scotland”.
Previous documents obtained by The Ferret under freedom of information law show that Scotland’s NHS boards are also concerned about a no-deal Brexit.
According to a briefing document prepared by NHS Greater Glasgow, around 75 per cent of the 15,000 medicines used in the UK come from or via the EU.
This document also said that the price of medicines may go up due to exchange rate fluctuations and medicine companies passing the costs of no-deal on to consumers.
Minutes from a meeting of NHS board resilience leads shows they are worried about the knock-on effects on the NHS if the social care system collapses because it can’t find enough staff.
Other concerns involve nursery staffing, disruption to the fuel supply chain and whether “sufficient blood components can be manufactured in the UK”.
Angela Mitchell, the national director of Diabetes Scotland said any delay or interruption to access of insulin would be “incredibly dangerous” for diabetes sufferers.
Mitchell added that any delay, or change in the make-up of, anti-epileptic medicine might trigger seizures in epilepsy sufferers. After these seizures, there is no guarantee they will be seizure-free again, she said.
The Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Jeanne Freeman, told The Ferret: “It is completely unacceptable that the issue of supplies of medicines and other medical resources should even arise – that is entirely the result of the UK government’s reckless approach to Brexit.”
Freeman said the government was working with stakeholders to prepare for all Brexit scenarios but many of the most important risks, such as new customs controls and delays at the UK border, are outside the control of the Scottish Government.
Freeman pointed out that 62 per cent of Scottish voters opted for remain in the 2016 referendum, adding that First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had told Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, that no-deal would be particularly damaging.
Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP, also criticised Johnson’s “chaotic” government and called for a ‘Peoples’ Vote’ on Brexit.
He added: “Brexit is built on false promises. Nobody voted for medicine shortages. This news will put immense stress on patients whose supplies come from outside the UK. Our health service is right to be concerned about the difficulties that may be coming down the line.”
The Tories’ reckless plan to leave the EU with no deal will literally put lives at risk. Neil Findlay, Labour MSP
Labour MSP Neil Findlay said: “The Tories’ reckless plan to leave the EU with no deal will literally put lives at risk. Instead of continuing with his fantasy bluff and bluster Boris Johnson must face up to the enormity of the situation the country faces.
“His Walter Mitty politics risk the health and wellbeing of millions of our citizens.”
The Royal College of Nursing in Scotland called for a referendum on any Brexit deal. “Uncertainty over the UK’s future relationship with the EU is putting healthcare in jeopardy,” said a spokesperson.
“Given the threat of a no-deal Brexit, it is only right that NHS Scotland is preparing as much as possible for the unknown.”