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The UK government has announced new plans to create an “express freight contingency arrangement” to keep supplies of critical medicines coming into the country if it leaves the EU without a deal on 31 October.

In an apparent change of strategy, following the disastrous attempt to secure extra ferry freight capacity before 29 March – estimated to have cost hundreds of millions in charter costs, legal fees and compensation – cabinet minister David Liddington told parliament yesterday the new capacity would remain “flexible”.

“The Department for Transport is putting in place a freight capacity framework agreement that will provide government departments with the ability to secure freight capacity for our critical supply chains as and when required,” he announced.

“This framework does not commit the government to purchasing or reserving any freight capacity, but it does provide a flexible list of operators and options for the provision of the capacity that can be drawn upon if needed,” he said.

He added that a key factor was to reduce UK supply chain exposure to possible congestion on the key cross-Channel ferry and rail links if a no-deal Brexit brought about disruptions that have been predicted.

And The Department of Health and Social Care is setting up an express freight contingency arrangement to support continuity of supply of medicines and medical products. This will be an urgent contingency measure for products requiring urgent delivery, within a 24-48 hour timeframe, if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, said Mr Liddington.

“This express freight contingency arrangement forms part of the department’s multi-layered approach, which includes rerouting medical supplies from the short strait crossings, extra warehouse space, stockpiling, buffer stocks, clarifying regulatory requirements, supporting traders to have all necessary paperwork in place at the border, and strengthening the processes used to deal with shortages to ensure that patients have uninterrupted access to medicines and medical products if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.

“Government will only pay for capacity as and when it is needed and used,” he added.

However, Port of Dover chief executive Doug Bannister argued that the government should, instead, focus on making sure borders remained open, however Brexit is presented.

“In the current circumstances, it is natural and appropriate that the UK government should consider how to protect the supply of certain critical goods. However, we also need a measured and holistic approach, one that rationally deals with all of our trading needs.

“The identified Category 1 goods, while critical, form a small subset of the total volume of goods essential to maintaining our quality of life. We believe a prudent government should place a commensurate level of attention to ensure that all borders remain open, so that other time-sensitive essential items, such as perishable foods, continue to flow via the most economic route to market.

“It is clear that the Dover Straits route provides the most popular and efficient connection for trade between the UK, Ireland and Europe – keeping all borders open will enable this key route to provide the essential support to Britain’s economy; factories stay busy, our distribution system remains efficient, shops are full of the goods we want to buy and so prices remain low for the consumer.

“Keeping the traffic moving freely across borders will mean balancing any requirements for declarations around the realities of just-in-time logistics and flexible routing of lorries and crystallising those requirements in sufficient time for merchants to develop the capability to meet them.

“It is in this area of ‘trader readiness’ that government can have a profound impact,” he said.

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