UK names ferry firms to transport medicines in case of no-deal Brexit

Brexit contingency plans helped some companies and sectors fall on their feet when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, even though the government struggled.

Brexit uncertainty continues. Even though members of the UK parliament legislated to block leaving the EU without a deal on 31 October 2019, there is still doubt over whether this law will be circumvented after a snap general election. And it’s not certain when, or even if, a general election will be held.

The impact of a no-deal scenario on the supply of medicines is clear. According to a government report, medicine supply chains could experience “severe extended delays” for up to six months in the “worst case” scenario after the UK leaves the EU. The predictions laid out in the Yellowhammer papers, state that the reliance of medicine supply chains on the short straits crossing make them particularly vulnerable to severe extended delays; three quarters of medicines come through the short straits (i.e. between Calais/Dunkirk/Coquelles and Dover/Folkestone). Whilst some products can be stockpiled, others cannot be due to their short shelf lives.

To mitigate these risks the UK government is preparing to spend up to £300m on extra freight capacity to bring medicines and other critical goods into the UK in the four years after a no-deal Brexit. The new £300m framework of ferry, rail and aircraft operators currently being put in place by the Department for Transport (DfT) will be used to transport critical goods such as medicines if the UK leaves the EU without a withdrawal agreement on 31 October.

The competition was launched on 20 September 2019 and allows the operators appointed to the framework to bid for the first freight capacity contracts for 31 October to ensure the UK is fully able to maintain the smooth flow of vital goods once the UK leaves the EU. The framework will be in place for the next 4 years and according to the DFT it should help speed up procurement processes. Government departments and some NHS bodies will use the framework to run “call-off mini competitions” for contracts. Freight companies will be able to bid for these competitions once they have secured a place on the framework agreement.

The eight companies signed up to the framework include ferry operators, Brittany Ferries, DFDS A/S, Irish Ferries, P&O Ferries, Seatruck and Stena, as well as operators from the aviation and rail industries Air Charter Services and Eurotunnel.

To support the flow of medicines, the competitions will focus on ports and terminals away from areas which are most likely to experience congestion. That is, imports using the framework will avoid the ports and airports where the DfT has determined disruption is most likely to happen in a no-deal scenario. Therefore, the freight terminals of Dover, Calais, Dunkirk, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Folkestone, Coquelles, and Barking are not included as the impact of disruption at these ports could affect the flow of vital goods.

While the use of alternative, less congested routes, seems like a very reasonable course of action, the DfT has not yet announced the alternative routes that will be used in the framework. So, with less than six weeks to go until Britain’s planned exit from the EU, the industry still doesn’t know which ports will be available. In addition, considering that the ferry contracts will be awarded mid-October, the industry also doesn’t know which ferries will be available so they still can’t make any bookings. Before the last no-deal deadline (29 March 2019), the DfT announced both the alternative routes and the ferry companies. Why it has failed to provide these details in the latest documents is not known.

Overall, the framework shows that there has been some movement when it come to the delivery of vital medicines. For example, the UK government abandoned its original plans to commission daily flights between the UK and the EU as they were later found to be inefficient following a government review. Nonetheless, with less than six weeks to go until Britain’s exit from the EU and with no details on the alternative routes and ferry companies used, the industry is still faced with a lot of uncertainty. The only certainty is that leaving the EU without a deal would bring a “significant risk” of disruption to the supply of medicines and medical devices.

Source: Transport Intelligence, September 24, 2019

Author: Violeta Keckarovska