• Government sets up its own “logistics hub” in Belgium and plans to manage its own shipping route
  • Intended for vital products where little stock is held, such as stents and some medicines
  • Suppliers told to register in advance to access extra capacity 

The Department of Health and Social Care has set up a “logistics hub” in Belgium and plans to manage its own dedicated shipping route from mainland Europe to the UK for vital medical products, as part of no-deal preparations, HSJ can reveal.

Suppliers of crucial medical products to the NHS have been asked to register so that they can access this “dedicated shipment channel” if their normal routes experience “severe disruption” as a result of a no-deal Brexit.

The plans were outlined in a letter to suppliers – seen by HSJ – from the DHSC’s chief commercial officer Steve Oldfield.

Sent yesterday, the letter said it was “possible” freight traffic crossing the English Channel may experience delays in a no-deal scenario.

It said the logistics hub in Belgium will be the start point from where certain products will be shipped across the Channel to the UK.

The shipping route will be operated by DHL and controlled by the DHSC and only used for products supplied to the NHS on a “short lead” timeframe (24 to 72 hours)..

These are would be medical devices such as stents and implants, which are delivered in small quantities at very high frequencies, meaning trusts hold little or no inventories.

They include products ordered via NHS Supply Chain’s Blue Diamond and E-Direct services, which are supplied directly to trusts instead of being stored at NHS Supply Chain’s warehouses.

The proposed major logistics operation will ensure those products reach NHS providers “typically within three days” of arriving at the hub in Belgium.

In his letter, Mr Oldfield urged suppliers to register for the scheme by Monday “so that products can be moved quickly and efficiently in the event that the contingency needs to be deployed”.

The hub will also manage the movement of products for the UK’s Crown Dependencies such as the Falkland Islands, the letter said.

Separately from the protected route for “just in time” products, the DHSC is also giving companies the option of registering to access tickets for extra ferry capacity which the government has purchased. These ferry tickets will be sold to suppliers “at market rate”. However, the government is “unable to guarantee access to any particular route at this stage” under this scheme, Mr Oldfield stated.

The seven routes are: 

  • Cherbourg (France) to Poole (4.5 hours);
  • Le Havre (France) to Portsmouth (6 hours);
  • Roscoff (France) to Plymouth (6 hours);
  • Caen (France) to Portsmouth (7 hours);
  • Vlaardingen (Netherlands) to Immingham (13 hours);
  • Cuxhaven (Germany) to Immingham (16 hours); and
  • Vlaardingen to Felixstowe (9 hours).

Tickets will be sold to suppliers from 4 March and onwards. Companies must register to receive tickets and “there will be no ‘turn-up and go’ access”, the letter stated.

According to the letter, the government “recognises that some suppliers will have already implemented their own contingency plans”.

“We suggest that suppliers should consider their contingency plans and utilise the additional government-procured freight capacity only where they believe they have a need,” it stated.

Mr Oldfield signed off the letter writing: “I am confident that, with adequate preparation and your support, we can together safeguard patient care in the event of a no-deal exit from the EU.”

The government has paid £88.8m for the extra ferry capacity, which has been sought from Brittany Ferries and DFDS. 

The DHSC refused to disclose the location of the logistics hub in Belgium. 

The DHSC has also secured extra storage space in the UK for the stockpiling of up to six weeks’ worth of medical supplies. 

The three companies awarded contracts to supply this extra storage are: 

  • Alloga UK Ltd;
  • DHL Supply Chain; and
  • Movianto UK Ltd.

The UK is set to leave the EU on 29 March.

Article updated at 4.58pm on 19 February to include details on the shipping routes and storage contracts, at 5.16pm on 19 February after DHSC confirmed the hub would be operated by DHL and the cost of the ferry capacity, and at 11.49pm on 19 February to clarify that the dedicated shipping channel will not be used for drugs.