The government has tasked four ferry companies, Brittany Ferries, DFDS, P&O and Stena Line, with delivering capacity equivalent to thousands of heavy goods vehicles per week.
If the UK leaves the European Union (EU) without a deal at the end of the month, the ferry companies will begin shipping medicines via routes that are less likely to be disrupted by the fallout of a no-deal Brexit.
Under the terms of the signed contracts, the ferry companies will provide services for six months in return for up to £86.6m ($110.7m). The framework under which the contacts were awarded will stay in place for four years to enable the government to quickly procure capacity if needed.
The government’s statement lacks details about which routes the ferry companies will use. However, the focus is likely to be on bypassing the anticipated bottleneck at the short straits crossings that link Dover and Folkestone in England to Calais and Dunkirk in France.
A 2018 report by the UK government found the short straits crossings could run at significantly reduced capacity for up to six months.
More recently, the Scottish government predicted the volume of goods shipped across the short straits could fall to 40% of normal capacity on day one of a no-deal Brexit and stay 50% below capacity three months later.
Scotland is considering using some of its terminals to mitigate the short straits bottleneck but even so the Scottish government thinks disruption to the supply of medicines and radiopharmaceuticals is “likely.”
The UK government is more optimistic. Earlier this month, Edward Argar, Minister of State at the Department of Health and Social Care, said the UK government’s actions “should” ensure medicines and medical device supply continues uninterrupted.
Many in the industry hold views closer to the Scottish government. Talking to the UK parliamentary committee overseeing Brexit in June, Martin Sawer, executive director of the Healthcare Distributors Association, said he “would expect medicine shortages and a lot of price rises for the NHS to happen pretty quickly” in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The UK is nearing the point that it may find out whether the more optimistic or pessimistic view is closer to reality. As it stands, the UK will leave the EU without a deal in less than two weeks unless an agreement is reached, an extension to the departure date is requested and granted or Brexit is called off altogether by the British parliament.
A revised agreement with the EU is in place but a planned vote in the UK parliament on whether to accept the terms was deferred on Saturday. In response, the government initiated its no-deal Brexit contingency plans.