No-deal Brexit poses a real risk of disrupting the Covid vaccine supply chain
Even if a deal is reached at the eleventh hour, there may still be problems with the supply chain and continuity, writes Lord Bassam | PA Images
If we don’t get a deal, people in the UK will rightly be worried about the timely delivery of all medicines, including the Covid vaccine. This will be the first real test of how we operate post-EU.
With continued uncertainty over Brexit running through everything the government is involved in, it is reasonable to ask ministers what happens to the supply of the Covid-19 vaccine in the event of a no deal outcome. Even if a deal is reached at the eleventh hour, there may still be problems with the supply chain and continuity. While ministers are right to be discrete in some of their business operations, the public need reassurance and clarity.
With that in mind I have tabled a question designed to give the government the opportunity to explain its thinking on contingency planning for vaccine deliveries. On one level, it was good to learn that arrangements were in place to transport supplies by air freight using the armed services. But it doesn’t instil great confidence in the traditional supply lines when the first consignments were shipped in from Belgium.
The withdrawal of the UK from the pooling arrangements for medical supplies and from the European Medicines Agency have cast shadows over supply line issues. If we don’t get a deal, people in the UK will rightly be worried about the timely delivery of all medicines. The sight of lengthy queues of trucks from southern ports, as well as reports of chaotic tailbacks at ports of departure, is hardly reassuring for us to take into a new year already fraught with Brexit uncertainties.
The UK will be directly responsible for regulation and the public must have confidence that everything from product development and testing through to manufacture and distribution is working well
One other issues to be thought through - coupled with supply chains - will be the terms of our contracts with Pfizer and BioNTech. Will these change over time when the initial contracts end? Will the UK have to negotiate a new deal under different trade terms? How will the regulation of the arrangement work and who will arbitrate?
When the Oxford/Astra Zeneca collaboration comes to fruition, ministers may well want to scale back on the Pfizer deal. It would help if across government there was a better understanding of how the contractual obligations interrelate. There has been much criticism during the pandemic of the rush to sign contracts for kit, equipment, and treatments, without effective value for money assessments being conducted and ministers working outside proper procurement procedures.
While valuable lessons may have been learnt over the past few months regarding the supply and distribution of medicines and medical equipment, they are not immediately apparent. The supply of effective vaccines is the first real time test of how we will operate post-EU. The period ahead is one where the UK will be directly responsible for regulation and the public must have confidence that everything from product development and testing through to manufacture and distribution is working well.
There is enough cynicism already about the efficacy of treatments stimulated by the anti-vaxxers. Ministers needs to be doing more to challenge such views. The best possible way to do so is through openness and transparency. Competence is a valuable commodity in government, but it sadly went walkabout when it was needed most, and public trust was spent soon after.
Procurement needs a professional approach, with clearly delineated lines of demarcation, and a premium placed on understanding the value of robust processes and the need for integrity.
Lord Bassam of Brighton is a Labour member of the House of Lords and is shadow spokesperson for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade in the Lords.