Health Secretary Matt Hancock has chartered a dedicate NHS aeroplane to ensure vital medical supplies are flown into the UK from Holland during a no-deal Brexit.
The aircraft will ferry crucial medical isotopes needed for cancer treatment and other diagnostics after Britain leaves the EU next March, HuffPost can reveal.
And in an ironic twist, the emergency supplies will be sourced direct from an airport in Maastricht – the Dutch town that has become famous for the EU integration treaty that sparked the original Tory Eurosceptic rebellion.
The Department of Health triggered its no-deal preparations – one of the biggest and most expensive of any government department – last week. Total spending on Brexit planning will top £4bn, No.10 confirmed on Tuesday.
The aircraft will fly regularly between the West Midlands and Maastricht-Aachen airport to pick up specialist cargo of isotopes and other ‘short-life’ supplies from key producers in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
Radioactive medical supplies cannot be stockpiled because as soon as they are produced they begin to decay and lose effectiveness.
Under a no-deal Brexit, current rules on European flights would be uncertain, and scientists have warned that the UK withdrawal from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) would make it harder to source medical istopes.
Hancock’s decision to authorise the chartering of a dedicated plane - which will fly to either Birmingham International or Coventry airport - emerged as the cabinet triggered wider no-deal contingency plans across the whole of government.
More than 3,000 troops have been put on standby for a chaotic, no-deal Brexit after Theresa May and other ministers decided to ‘ramp up’ emergency plans for the UK crashing out of the EU.
Previously, Hancock has said work is being done on emergency flights for medical supplies but until now few details have been given.
Other work to fast-track lorries containing medicines through ports such as Dover is also being carried out, with priority lanes for the NHS.
The health secretary revealed on BBC’s Newsnight this week that no-deal planning had made him “the largest buyer of fridges in the world”, in order to provide short-term refrigeration of key drugs and other products.
The lobby group ScientistsForEU said that the plane would have little real impact, given that 80% of isotopes are imported and one million people rely on them.
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth told HuffPost UK: “This is yet more evidence of the disaster that a no deal Brexit will mean for the NHS and access to medicine.
“When we import around 37 million packs of medicine a month including 99% of insulin it’s highly irresponsible of Theresa May to refuse to rule out a no deal Brexit.
“Instead ministers are forced for splash taxpayers cash chartering planes and stockpiling fridges, patients must be protected and a no deal Brexit must be abandoned.”
Earlier, defence secretary Gavin Williamson revealed that regular and reserve military personnel were now in a state of ‘readiness’ to support government departments to deal with the fall-out of leaving without an agreement with Brussels.
The armed forces plan – swiftly dubbed a ‘Brexit battalion’ – emerged as the cabinet triggered contingency moves to warn families and businesses to brace themselves for a no-deal outcome when the UK leaves the 28-nation bloc next March.
During a lengthy cabinet meeting, the prime minister stressed to colleagues that her Brexit deal was “our best mitigation against no-deal”, but said that as a “sensible government” it had to plan for “every eventuality”.
However continuing splits in May’s top team surfaced in the three-hour meeting. Justice Secretary David Gauke warned hardline Brexiteers that a ‘managed no-deal’ was a fantasy.
“It’s not the job of cabinet to propagate unicorns, but to slay them,” he said during the meeting, one government source told HuffPost UK.
Chancellor Philip Hammond also lambasted the idea of a ‘managed no-deal’, stating it was “not viable”, while Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd added: “Just because you put a seatbelt on, doesn’t mean you crash the car”.
Both were a direct criticism of ministers like Penny Mordaunt who have floated the suggestion of withholding £20bn from the EU while reverting to basic trade rules.