Skip to main content

Covid-19: Impact of No-deal Brexit on Vaccine Supplies

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on supplies of COVID-19 vaccines to the United Kingdom in the event of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union without a deal.

My Lords, it is extremely concerning that the Government should contemplate no deal in two weeks’ time, in the middle of a pandemic, with the serious impact this could have on medical supplies and supplies of Covid-19 vaccines. How many Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines will be in the UK by 31 December? How many government ferries and RAF planes are on standby to bring Covid-19 vaccines into the UK in the event of no deal, and at what cost?

I think the noble Lord forgot to ask the main Question: I shall give him the Answer to that first and then go on to his supplementary. The UK has put in place a number of measures to facilitate trade with the EU beyond the end of the transition period and to avoid impact on vaccine supplies beyond 1 January. The Government have worked with Covid-19 vaccine suppliers to support them with robust contingency plans. If necessary, we will use alternative supply routes and Government-procured freight capacity in line with current government advice.

On his supplementary question, the noble Lord will understand that unfortunately I cannot set out details of commercial arrangements relating to vaccines at the present time, but I can reassure him that part of the commercial arrangements with vaccine developers is a requirement to ensure that vaccines are transported safely and securely to minimise the cost of damage.

My Lords, as we have just heard, and if press reports are to be believed, Royal Air Force planes are on standby to transport the Covid vaccine in the event of no deal—a perfectly reasonable thing to do under the military aid to the civil authorities rules. However, the rules are very clear that military assets can be used only if all commercial alternatives have been exhausted, so I seek reassurance from my noble friend that those commercial alternatives will be used first.

I welcome my noble friend to these Benches. He has acknowledged expertise in this area and, of course, he is quite right: commercial options will be used first, second and third, and the military only as a very last resort.

My Lords, first, I congratulate the Government on procuring the vaccines so urgently needed. Each box contains 96 vials; each vial, five doses: a box is enough to vaccinate 480 people. The value is considerable and illicit drug dealers and criminals have never been more motivated to intercept or steal legal drugs, as the potential profit is far larger, at the moment, than those from heroin and cocaine. For this reason, I welcome the fact that we may have to use the military to ensure that vaccines are delivered safely in this transition period. Can the Minister assure the House that plans are sufficiently robust, in terms of security, to prevent theft?

As I said in my previous answer, the use of the military is very much a last resort. I am sure that the noble Baroness will understand that I cannot share details of security arrangements, but I can assure her that we have worked very closely with vaccine suppliers and others to ensure that shipments are properly protected and looked after.

My Lords, will the Minister tell us a bit more about the contingency plans? Apparently, there is a Government-procured ferry on standby. We did not have much luck last time. Can he confirm that it is properly equipped to deal with the extreme refrigeration needed? Is there a backup to this contingency plan?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. I can assure him that there are a number of backup plans. We have worked very closely with the suppliers and we are confident that the cold supply chain will not cause any problems. Obviously, everybody is aware that this vaccine has to be transported at a temperature of minus 70 degrees, plus or minus 10 degrees centigrade, and the manufacturers have put in place proper supply units that are maintained at that cold temperature and can also be used for temporary storage.

My Lords, I am involved with the diabetes research charity JDRF. It has been in regular contact with the Department of Health and Social Care and insulin manufacturers, and has been reassured about the stockpiles of insulin being held. The main concern now is around replenishment of supply. We are already reading about freight movement difficulties and with, or especially without, a Brexit deal, this could well get worse after 1 January. Will the import of the Covid vaccine from January affect the replenishment of supply of essential medicines imported from the EU, such as insulin, and what plans have been put in place to prevent disruption?

I can reassure the noble Baroness that there will be no disruption to supply. We have put in place extensive measures to avoid any impact on the supply of essential medicines, in addition to the vaccine, beyond the end of the transition period. The Department of Health and Social Care has put a huge amount of planning work into this, so I think that her concerns are unfounded.

My Lords, considerable concerns have been expressed about the likelihood of shortages of medicines in the event of a no-deal Brexit. I understand that the Government have done a lot of analysis of the expected impact of no deal. Will the Minister place in the Library the results of that analysis with respect to shortages of medicines if we leave the EU without a trade deal?

As I just told the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, we have put robust contingency arrangements in place; a huge amount of planning has gone into it and we are confident that there will be no disruption to medical supplies.

The arrival last week of the vaccine from Belgium was greeted with great joy in the UK. We know also, for instance, that 98% of our consignments of insulin come from Germany and Denmark. We rely so much on other people and other nations. Can the Minister give me one instance of the benefit there will be for those who rely on medicines after we leave the European Union?

We co-operate on medicines supply with countries all over the world, not just in Europe. Those countries also rely on supplies from the United Kingdom, so we are confident that we will maintain good relations with other European and world nations and co-operate on these matters to our mutual benefit.

My Lords, the great disadvantage of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is the requirement to store and transport it at low sub-zero temperatures; some other vaccines have much easier handling and storing requirements. Is this matter easily included in the specification, thereby making the end product far cheaper and easier to transport and administer?

As I said in previous answers, it is clearly a challenge to supply a vaccine that requires such careful handling, but Pfizer has years of proven experience: it has developed packaging and storage innovations for the vaccine, with specially designed temperature-controlled shippers using dry ice to maintain the temperature of minus 70 degrees, plus or minus 10 degrees centigrade.

My Lords, we have the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine available, with more than 137,000 people inoculated in the first week, and we hope to have the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine available soon, approved by the MHRA. In due course, when there is widespread availability of the vaccines, will the Minister look at getting businesses to work with the Government and the NHS to have vaccinations take place at large workplaces, including factories, under proper supervision, thus preventing disruption at work and speeding up the rollout of the vaccinations and saving lives?

This is a matter, of course, for the Department of Health and Social Care, but we will indeed want to work with businesses, as we have done on the supply of vaccines. We pay tribute to the work of the Vaccine Taskforce, which has done a tremendous job. We have 357 million doses of vaccines from seven leading candidates, some of which are manufactured in the UK and some abroad. We have worked very closely with business and we want to continue to do so in the future.