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Medicines stockpiling plan is a begging letter dressed up as a legal obligation

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Brexit: Why should medicines sector pay for destroying its own business model?
Brexit: Why should medicines sector pay for destroying its own business model?

Opinion: Why should industry pay for confected crisis?

Brexit: A bitter pill for industry
Brexit: A bitter pill for industry

The UK government’s guidance on the consequences of a no-deal Brexit is coined in technical terms, but unanswered questions and alarming possibilities lurk uneasily in the mix, like sharks in a storm.

Some of the terminology is deeply suspect too. For starters, the suggestion that the medicines industry should stockpile six weeks’ worth of drugs has been termed as the government “informing” or “instructing” the pharmaceutical sector to begin stockpiling exercises.

In fact this isn’t a request, or an instruction. It’s a plea. It’s a begging letter dressed up as a legal obligation. The government needs business to help get Brexit over the line. The big question – of who will pay for this stockpiling process – isn’t being addressed. The government has made no public offer to industry about sharing the cost burden.

The implication is that the suppliers should pay for the emergency backups, but why should they? A no-deal Brexit would be a political choice the government is making. It can’t automatically assume that the bill will be picked up by the very firms who stand most to lose next March.

The industry – like pretty much all industries in the UK – now know the disaster that awaits a no-deal outcome. If they didn’t before, it’s all too apparent now.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the UK BioIndustry Association and other stakeholders should tell the government they will not foot the bill alone. This may encourage the political class, in some small regard at least, to think again about whether Brexit – any sort of Brexit – is a judicious exercise for the UK economy.

Secondly, to give it some credit, the government has at least attempted to clarify arrangements on the UK side. But of course, no arrangements on the EU side are being discussed as yet. Will the EU sign up to the notion that some goods can be block-processed through ports? We don’t know: the 24 papers published so far are only a partial guide rather than a shared cross-border logistical narrative.

The most alarming take on these reports is that they are a blame-shifting exercise were a no-deal disaster to befall the UK economy. There’s a lot of guff in the 24 papers about how a no-deal outcome is an “unlikely scenario”. Is it? It looks to some as if it would be the inevitable outcome of the government’s inability to develop a policy acceptable even to its own party, let alone the country or – lest we forget – our European partners.

The blame-shifting is most obvious with regard to the official advice on the vexed question of the Northern Ireland border. The 85,000 businesses in Northern Ireland have been told to “ask Dublin” about what would happen in the event of a no-deal Brexit. This Irish referral advice is shocking – and it could yet become official policy with respect to negotiations over the border. ‘We won’t put a hard border in, but if Dublin does then it’s their fault for whatever happens next.’

Shunting aside all questions about north-south arrangements in the event of no deal shows how averse the UK government is to addressing the issue, which is why it’s leaving it to Dublin to come up with a plan. And if – as they are obliged to do under EU legislation – Dublin opts for a hard border, the UK government won’t accept any responsibility for the outcome, and will blame Dublin and, by proxy, Brussels for any and all incidents that occur on that border.

The government’s technical documents paper over cracks as wide as the English Channel. A mixture of ineptitude and casually irresponsible posturing make this a disingenuous and deceptive exercise. Industry deserves none of this, and yet is expected to pay the government’s way out of the morass. This is just the start of a new business/political dilemma.

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