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12 May 2020updated 26 Jul 2021 8:30am

Why we must lift the no-deal Brexit ban on exporting medicines

Free and fair trade is not just essential to economic growth, but the only route out of the coronavirus depression. 

By Bill Esterson

It was an ordinary weekend last October: the first poster was revealed for the upcoming James Bond film; tickets sold out in minutes for Glastonbury 2020; and Liverpool extended their winning run in the Premier League by beating Leicester 2-1. 

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove ramped up their threats and preparations to leave the EU without a deal at the end of that month, imposing a ban on the export of several medicines to ensure sufficient supplies could be stockpiled here in the UK.

Like much of the government’s no-deal rhetoric at the time, the announcement was not taken too seriously. Indeed, the biggest – and rather amused – headlines it sparked came a fortnight later when a substitute for Viagra was added to the list of banned exports.

Seven months on, and – at least for now – “no deal” is off the agenda, along with the Bond film, Glastonbury and Liverpool’s title procession. But the medicines export ban is not only still in place, it has been drastically expanded over the past two months.

At the latest count, the export of 130 different medicines is now banned, and what was originally part of the game of brinkmanship with Brussels has become a deadly serious element of the government’s response to the Coronavirus crisis.

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Of course it is natural and right that we should want to put our citizens first, protect our medical supplies and minimise the risk to lives in the UK. Every one of us, terrified at the prospect of those we care for and love falling ill, would expect nothing less. But unfortunately, the ban on medicine exports is a simplistic and short-sighted means of achieving those understandable ends.  

First, the production of those medicines relies on the import of raw materials used in the manufacturing process. If we start closing our doors to trade in these products with other countries, we may end up undermining our ability to produce them for ourselves.

Similarly, faced with export restrictions by us, other countries may follow suit and impose their own limits on the export of essential supplies produced by their manufacturers, including the Personal Protective Equipment and Covid-19 tests we so desperately need.

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Finally, we must think about the long term. Barriers created during the crisis have the potential to breed long-lasting resentments, which could harm the relationships and openness on which successful trade depends. 

Anyone standing back from this issue would see that nations around the world are far better off working together, and trading fairly and openly for the supplies we need, rather than each country trying to go it alone at the expense of their neighbours. That is as true now, when we are tackling the crisis, as it will be in the future, when we are trying to get our respective economies – and global growth – back on track.

And that is why, in their joint statement, the World Trade and World Health Organisations said that any measure taken to promote public health that has the effect of restricting trade should be “targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary”.  As they rightly point out, governments need to avoid measures that can disrupt supply chains, and make it harder to respond effectively and collectively to the crisis.

It would be clear folly to ignore that advice, and indeed, an outward-facing, internationalist country like Britain should actually be doing the opposite, and showing global leadership in pursuit of our common objective to defeat the coronavirus, just like Singapore and New Zealand, who have committed to lift export restrictions for the greater good. 

And there is a wider reason our leadership on this issue matters, within what we hope will soon be the post-coronavirus world. Given the angry blame game between world leaders regarding responsibility for the pandemic, and the mindless targeting of outsiders and minority groups in certain countries held responsible for its spread, it would be all too easy for political nationalism to fuel economic protectionism, as it has done in the past.

Britain must speak out against that trend, and the Labour Party will take a lead in doing so, making the case that free and fair trade in goods and services is not only essential to economic growth, but also is the only route out of the disastrous coronavirus depression. 

And once that eventual economic recovery is secure, we must also reflect on what we can do differently so that no future government is driven towards the panicked and potentially counter-productive policy of protectionism in a similar crisis. After all, we don’t know when the next pandemic will strike, but we do know it will come, and we must therefore learn from this one as quickly as possible. 

We must start by strengthening our manufacturing base and increasing our domestic capacity, so that the economic efficiency of what we produce “just in time” is coupled with the additional resilience and security of what we produce “just in case”. 

Being protected against crises – especially those on this scale – is a proportionate and sensible economic strategy, and an essential part of any future industrial policy: allowing us to keep our exports going, while maintaining sufficient supplies at home. That kind of sensible self-protection is not the same as protectionism, and will not produce the same disastrous results, nor the same divided world.

Indeed, while others may be spiralling down that protectionist path, Britain can instead show that looking after yourself does not mean raising barriers against your neighbours. 

Bill Esterson is the Labour MP for Sefton Central.