An “express freight service” will help transport urgent medicines into the country when the UK leaves the EU, the Government has announced.
The £25 million contract will help ensure continuity of supply after Brexit – regardless of whether this takes place with or without a deal, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
It will allow small parcels of medicines and products to be delivered within 24 hours, with the potential for larger quantities to be moved within 2-4 days.
It can also deliver temperature controlled products if needed, the DHSC added.
The Government has issued an invitation to tender for potential providers wanting to bid for the contract, which will run for at least 12 months.
It did not specify what form the transport could take.
Health minister Chris Skidmore said: “I want to ensure that when we leave the EU at the end of October, all appropriate steps have been taken to ensure frontline services are fully prepared.
“That’s why we are stepping up preparations and strengthening our already extremely resilient contingency plans.
“This express freight service sends a clear message to the public that our plans should ensure supply of medical goods remains uninterrupted as we leave the EU.”
The contract may be extended for a further year, the DHSC said, adding that the total cost to the tax payer would be around £4 million.
Any interested providers have until August 21 to submit proposals and the successful bidder will be announced in September.
The Government has been urging pharmaceutical companies to stockpile six weeks’ worth of essential medicines in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Critics of no-deal say Britain’s reliance on the EU to import drugs and medical equipment could ramp up costs and cause issues in the supply chain.
Mark Dayan, policy analyst at the Nuffield Trust, said: “These drastic plans to get urgent medical supplies into the UK for a year after a no-deal Brexit show the scale of disruption the Government is preparing for. In the circumstances, this new service is a good idea.
“But the delays and extra paperwork that Brexit without an agreement will cause will still be there when the plane lands or the train rolls in.
“There will be complicated new processes for customs and gaining permission to use these services.
“Companies and suppliers will have to reroute all their supply lines overnight.
“Any teething problems that result will have a sharp impact on care as vital supplies that can’t last more than a few days become useless.”
Labour spokeswoman Barbara Keeley said: “It’s alarming that after three years the Government is still leaving Brexit preparations to the 11th hour and that the health of patients is dependent on a contractor yet to be selected.
“It’s shameful and irresponsible that Boris Johnson is stubbornly refusing to rule out No Deal. The Tories are putting people’s health at risk.”
Dr David Wrigley, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association, said: “It is beyond alarming that the future delivery of medicine and medical supplies in the UK could be dependent on a freight service – for which the supplier hasn’t yet even been appointed.
“This latest announcement from the Government is a further indication of the chaos that will lay in store for the NHS and patients in the event of a no-deal Brexit and highlights just how costly this will be.”