There have been calls this morning for the government to provide priority shipping routes for medicines in the event of a No-Deal Brexit this March.

It’s been reported that Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceuticals company, has built up 18 weeks’ supply of medicines in preparation, and has implored the government to plan alternatives to the Calais-Dover route which is routinely used.

Pinder Sahota, UK general manager for the company, has cited the as-yet unknown length of delays at major UK ports as a major concern, and has confirmed the company have arranged for chartered air-freight if needed post-Brexit.

This is all well and good, and the premise of asking the government for clarity on these issues is a legitimate concern. However, is it as simple as prioritising pharmaceuticals at the top of the import list?

The short answer is, not really.

The UK imports around 75% of its medicines. That’s 80 million packets of medicine each month. But what about the import of other goods? The largest import market for the UK is ‘Electrical machinery’ which is valued at £61.4bn – more than double pharma’s value.

Before you begin to think ‘well, electrical machinery isn’t saving someone’s life’, think again. Electrical machinery constitutes generators, communications equipment, A/V, lighting, wires and cables. A portion of this equipment goes to hospitals, schools and our defence services. Surely computers for our Ministry of Defence are just as important as blood-pressure medication? Or a generator more vital than bicarbonate of soda – classed as pharmaceutical by the government. Pharmaceutical imports aren’t only insulin and antibiotics, there are vitamins, cod liver oil, eye drops, lubricants and dental cement which all fall under this category.

Of course, we would (assumedly) rely on the pharma companies themselves to use priority shipments to bring in highly classified medicines – but would this be regulated? And again, something which is ‘vital’ for one person might be not-so-important elsewhere.

Mineral fuels and oil are another huge import market. In fact, our reliance as a nation on imported energy has risen to levels recorded in 1970 as our own production has dwindled. Crude oil, natural gas and petroleum are imported from other European countries along with ‘rest of the world’ regions. Whist non-European imports shouldn’t be subject to additional checks, there are still expectations of huge delays at out ports and borders. Will petroleum imports gain priority so the masses can drive their cars and drive our public transport? And what about coal imports, much of which goes to power our electricity plants? This must be one of the highest priority imported goods?

Vehicles – ambulances, car parts, transportation. Medical apparatus – monitors, surgical tools, diagnostic equipment, life support equipment. Aircraft materials, trucks, piston engine parts – keeping industry going is an integral piece of our economy. Everything has its own weight, its own merit, and its own importance.

There have been predictions that trade passing through Dover may drop as much as 80% in the six months following Brexit. Even the general public has been warned of ensuing traffic chaos, as ports and airports become overwhelmed and delays mean traffic grinds to a standstill.

There are no clear answers to what ‘priority cargo’ really means, nor how we can ensure businesses are acting responsibly when it comes to the import of such goods.


Sarah O’Connell | Senior Editor