A delay in agreeing a Brexit transition deal could harm NHS patients, a senior MP has warned.
In a letter to the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the chair of the Commons health committee, Sarah Wollaston, said that any holdups could put patient care at risk.
Wollaston said it would mean more health businesses diverting money towards contingency planning for a “disorderly” withdrawal from the European Union.
“Patient care, both in the UK and Europe, is at risk of being compromised in the event of a disorderly Brexit. Businesses and services – like government – need to plan for all outcomes to avoid any disruption to the supply of medical products,” she said.
The MP added that the health service and businesses, including those manufacturing and distributing medicines, “remain in the dark” about Britain’s exit from the EU. Many are planning for a worst-case scenario because “time is running out” for a transition deal to follow the UK’s formal exit in March 2019.
There are hopes that a deal between Britain and the EU about the two-year transition period will be decided at March’s European council summit.
Wollaston warned in her letter: “If the announcement, and details, of a transition period is delayed beyond March 2018, more businesses will be forced to invest money in contingency plans at the expense of this funding going towards advancing patient care.
“This is an unnecessary cost and distraction, which should be avoided,” she said.
The Conservative MP also called on the government to agree with the EU a joint public statement on protecting the interests of patients in the event of a “no deal” Brexit that would see the UK severing its ties with the European Medicines Agency, which regulates the supply of medical products.
“Failing this, and in the event that agreement to a transition is not reached by the end of March, the committee seeks a commitment from the government to make its own statement about the UK’s unilateral preparations for a no-deal situation,” she said.
The government should also publish its contingency planning for healthcare to provide “clarity”, Wollaston said.
She argued this would strengthen the UK’s negotiating position by demonstrating a “credible fallback position” and allow public scrutiny.
Jonathan Ashworth MP, the shadow health and social care secretary, said that Wollaston’s “powerful warning” reaffirmed Theresa May’s astonishing complacency in securing the best possible Brexit deal for patients and staff.
“It is critically important that patients’ access to crucial drugs is not in any way restricted once we leave the European Union, and Sarah Wollaston is correct to warn time is running out, with many manufacturers now planning for a worst-case scenario,” he said.
The British Medical Association treasurer, Andrew Dearden, said: “As Britain’s departure from the EU grows closer there are too many uncertainties that still exist regarding the delivery of healthcare post-Brexit. We need assurances now from the government that any delays to an agreement will not adversely impact patient care.
He added: “The NHS is already suffering from a chronic lack of funding and a disordered withdrawal from the EU will undoubtedly risk money going towards contingency plans that would be better spent on the direct delivery of patient care.”