EU Exit Preparations: Ferry Contracts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 5th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education) 2:30 pm, 5th March 2019

I thank my hon. Friend Alan Brown for securing this important debate. It is interesting to follow Charlie Elphicke, who asked us to respect the decision of the people. Well, SNP Members respect the decision of our constituents and the people of Scotland, who voted 62% to remain, and we will continue not just to respect that, but to stand here and defend their decision. The hon. Gentleman spoke about this utopia voted for by the people who wanted to leave—this wonderful place that would be the UK out of Europe. However, he failed to recognise that people voted to leave because they were neglected, forgotten and ignored for years and years. Those areas had not been invested in and, as a result, there was a vote. But it was a vote of anger and protest, not for the mess that are currently in.

During yesterday’s urgent question on the Eurotunnel payment, the Secretary of State for Health insisted 24 times—I have been through Hansard—that these contracts were about the unhindered supply of medicines. He also went on to say:

“I find it astonishing that Members on the Opposition Benches continue to make the case that this is not about medicines;
it is all about medicines”—[Official Report, 4 March 2019;
Vol. 655, c. 710.]

I just wonder what part of the contingency planning process awards contracts to a company that has no ferries, when this is all about the vital supply of medicines. It makes no sense whatever.

Given that the Secretary of State for Health yesterday answered questions for his pal, the Secretary of State for Transport, I assume that there will be a reciprocal agreement today. I hope that the Secretary of State for Transport, before he leaves, will answer some questions about health. If this is all about the unhindered supply of medicines, we need him to answer some questions about medicines. In particular, I want him to answer some questions about medical radioisotopes. I have been asking about this issue for more than two years without any proper information coming forward. I asked yesterday, and I previously asked a fortnight ago during Health questions on 19 February. It is a shame not to see the Health Secretary here today as he is so good on transport. On 19 February, he said that any issues with the supply of radioisotopes would be dealt with because the radioisotopes would be brought in by air. He also said that this planning was at an advanced stage. That was a really useful statement. If this contingency planning is indeed at an advanced stage, I would be keen to hear about the arrangements—about what is actually happening to ensure that we have radioisotopes for medical diagnosis and cancer treatment.

Most of our medical isotopes currently come through Dover or Coventry airport. If we assume that they are going to be coming through Coventry in the event of problems at Dover, we can also assume that there is expertise there to deal with it. Coventry airport deals with isotopes efficiently and effectively at the moment, but has there been increased capacity planning? We now know about the £33 million, and we have heard statements today that this will improve the services and ensure that everything runs smoothly, but I wonder how much has been spent on increasing the capacity at Coventry airport. If we are at an advanced stage of planning, I wonder how much training and upskilling has been done for staff in Coventry. Dealing with radioisotopes needs special skills and training, but I am sure it will be fine because we are at an advanced stage.

The UK is not self-sufficient when it comes to producing these materials. Around 80% of the materials we get come from Europe—from the Netherlands, Belgium and France—but, unlike medicines, they cannot be stockpiled. As soon as they are produced, they begin to decay, and the longer the delay, the smaller the dose of useful isotope that remains. There are two isotopes that are important in this process. The first is molybdenum, which has a half-life of 66 hours. Just to be clear, half-life means that after 66 hours it is half as effectives as it was, and after another 66 hours it is half as effective again. This means that if we have a delay of even under a week, only a quarter of the useful substance will get to us. Once we get the molybdenum, we use it to generate technetium, which has an ever shorter half-life of only six hours. That has to get to patients quickly, but it would soon become utterly unusable. Not only does that have implications for patients’ health; it also has cost implications. If the original molybdenum does not get to us quickly, we will only have a half or a quarter of the stuff we thought we could use. That is problematic.

In 2008, a channel tunnel fire interrupted the supply of medical radioisotopes from the continent. Even this brief disturbance affected services. In 2015, industrial action in Calais resulted in radioisotopes being flown in via Coventry airport. The concern is that the situation that we face now is far greater than any of these incidents and much harder to mitigate, and the duration of the disruption is almost impossible to predict.

There are major questions over the UK’s ability to safeguard measures such as air freight deliveries of radioisotopes. Even assuming that aviation is completely unaffected by Brexit, there will be additional costs, and there is no guarantee that the supplies will be smooth, predictable and uninterrupted. There is uncertainty over the sourcing of radioisotopes from the European Union. We are currently part of Euratom, through which we are able to source them. Yes, of course, we can go further afield, but we cannot go to South Africa anymore because it has shut its reactor down, so supplies are even more limited. We could go to Canada but, as I have already explained, the time factor would make that problematic. This situation has serious implications.

Radioisotopes represent just one fragile and time-sensitive supply chain, but the challenges are considerable. With multiple links in the supply chain simultaneously threatened, the potential for serious disruption is immense, as we are seeing just now. The costs could be substantial, not least to the 1 million UK patients who depend on these services every single year. I am sure that the emergency planning has taken that into account. It is a pity that the Transport Secretary has gone because I would like to hear about the contingency planning for getting these medicines to the UK. In fact, since members of the Government are now able to switch roles, I would also like to hear how he is sourcing these medicines. I want to know what spending has taken place in Coventry.

Finally, I thank the Secretary of State for Transport for agreeing to appear here today. It is nice that he was here for a bit. I look forward to hearing more about the unhindered supply of medicines that we have heard about.