Without a deal NHS access to medicines and supplies could be impacted during a prolonged Covid-19 second wave

Nuffield Trust warns that leaving the EU’s single market at the end of this year without a deal could impede our ability to combat second wave.

Press release

Published: 14/10/2020

The ability of the National Health Service across the UK to combat the growing second wave of Covid-19 is likely to be impeded by the end of the Brexit transition period – especially if no deal is secured. 

A briefing from the Nuffield Trust warns that the risk of leaving the EU’s single market at the end of this year without a deal could lead to interruptions to medicine supply particularly if the continuing pandemic results in stockpiling of treatments and export controls of vital masks and gowns from the EU, as we saw in March.

Brexit and Coronavirus, published as crucial talks between the UK and EU get underway, finds that imports from the EU of medical equipment hit their highest ever level in March 2020 during the first coronavirus wave, a spike that may be difficult to handle if it happened again at the same time as leaving the single market.

A deal with the EU would improve this situation, though the Nuffield Trust notes that few of the most important measures for health have been secured in negotiations, and neither the UK nor EU seems to have treated them as an overwhelming priority during the pandemic.

Leaving the single market without a deal would mean maximal disruption at customs, and a breakdown in the UK-EU relationship might threaten information sharing, efforts to keep trade flowing, and the UK being exempt from any export blocks.

The briefing also finds that:

  • Since the EU referendum, generic medicine shortages have spiked repeatedly to levels much higher than before, showing that this is a very sensitive market to disruption.
  • Whether or not we get a deal will influence whether the UK can secure continued access to pandemic data sharing, and continued access to flagship European science funding.
  • Even a relatively light trade deal with the EU without key provisions on medicines regulation will still create many of the issues associated with no deal.
  • The UK’s planned migration policy for the period after December 31st would stop people from migrating to take up the vast majority of roles in social care, posing another serious problem for the distressed sector.

Much of the impact of leaving the single market will be felt immediately with several important areas for responding to the pandemic depending on a negotiated outcome between the UK and EU. The briefing calls for these areas to be given much higher priority as negotiations enter a crucial final phase.

Nuffield Trust policy analyst and Brexit programme lead Mark Dayan, who authored the report, said:

“A resurgent second wave of the pandemic is at the forefront of people’s minds but the NHS’s ability to cope with this extreme demand will be impacted by the decisions taken now in negotiating chambers in London and Brussels.

“The effects of leaving the single market, even with a deal, will be felt immediately. Given the demand pressure seen during the first wave on protective equipment and medicines there is a real risk to supply should EU controls on medical exports cover the UK.

“It is not yet clear whether any agreement about the UK’s future relationship with the EU after the end of the transition period has the safeguards needed for health and social care services to access the supplies, workforce and data sharing they need to combat the pandemic. Addressing these concerns will often fall on goodwill and cooperation between the two sides.

“Unfortunately, despite all that has happened this year, negotiators on both sides have not been putting health first. As negotiations enter the crucial final stage we need to see greater prioritisation of health care issues to avoid damaging the NHS and care services and undermining the response to Covid-19.”

Notes to editors

Notes to editors:

  • The briefing forms part of the Nuffield Trust’s series of Covid-19 briefings. Earlier papers looked at how the NHS’s response compared internationally, and at the changes in digital technology the pandemic brought about in the health service.
  • The Nuffield Trust is also working with a team of academics on a project which will highlight all the likely ways in which Brexit may affect health in the UK, and how they can be tracked over years to come.
  • The Nuffield Trust is an independent health think tank. We aim to improve the quality of health care in the UK by providing evidence-based research and policy analysis and informing and generating debate.
  • For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Simon Keen on 07780 475571 or simon.keen@nuffieldtrust.org.uk.