The government would prioritise medicines over food in the case of a no-deal Brexit, Matt Hancock has told MPs.
The health secretary’s comments come after a number of the country’s leading supermarkets – including Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Waitrose, Co-op and Morrisons – warned that shoppers could be left facing empty shelves if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal.
With around of a third of UK food imported from the UK, no-deal would cause “significant disruption” to millions of UK consumers, the supermarket giants said.
“Medicines will be prioritised in the event of no-deal,” Hancock told parliament’s health and social care committee when quizzed on Monday about potential food shortages.
With 60 days to go until Brexit, “very significant” work has been done to ensure there will be no break in the supply of drugs in case of no-deal, he said.
“We have been through detailed, line-by-line analysis of the 12,000 medicines that are licensed in the UK.
“The pharmaceutical industry have, I would say, risen to this challenge and done their duty thus far.”
According to the Tory frontbencher, around half of the number of medicines in the UK currently have a “touch point” with the European Union.
While there is still a “lot more work” ahead, “we do have the time necessary to do what we need to do,” Hancock added.
His statement was echoed by NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens, who told the committee: “Provided everybody does what they are supposed to do, particularly the transport infrastructure…then we would expect the availability of these supplies to continue.”
But when asked why the government would prioritise medicines over food, Hancock told Labour’s Ben Bradshaw: “The explanation I would give in terms of food is that the proportion of food that is imported is much smaller than for medicines.”
The cabinet minister also used his appearance to further clarify his comments on Sunday that the government had considered plans to declare martial law to calm any disorder following a no-deal Brexit.
Arguing that there was “no such thing” as martial law in the UK, Hancock told MPs: “There is a civil contingencies act. It is an option all the time for all sorts of consideration.
“As I said yesterday, that is on the statute book, but that is not what we are planning to use,” he added.