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Sussex medicines firm takes production line abroad in white van to beat Brexit ban

A Sussex pharmaceutical company has told how it had to bundle a production line into a white van and take it to Amsterdam to beat a Brexit medicines ban.

The impromptu four-wheeled mission to the Netherlands has secured the supply of the asthma drug Ventolin for France, where the company, Mediwin, had a huge order book.

Lisa Cooke, its finance director, said the company had been preparing for Brexit since the referendum but had not counted on an overnight block on wholesale distribution from the UK into EU member states.

“It was a bit of a white-knuckle ride a couple of weeks ago. We had stockpiled supplies, particularly of Ventolin because it was being sold in huge quantities in France and we were getting anxious that we would run out,” she said. “So our production manager hired a van and took five machines – which was essentially one production line – to the Netherlands. He got the line up and running. We’ve rented an apartment and got six people working over there now. And so far we’ve hired 15 people in the Netherlands and they want another 10 or 11.”

Under the EU single market freedoms known as “parallel distribution”, Mediwin was allowed to buy drugs for a range of conditions, including type 2 diabetes, glaucoma and atrial fibrillation, from one member state and repackage them for another member state at lower prices.

In a blow to the British company, production lines in Littlehampton are now at near standstill while assembly ramps up in the Netherlands. Further expansion will take place in Spain and other EU countries.

“To put things into context we usually receive around 75 pallets of stock a week – in January we have received two,” Cooke said.

Lisa Cooke, finance director, Mediwin
Lisa Cooke said the company had been preparing for Brexit since the referendum but had not counted on an overnight block on wholesale distribution from the UK

She said while she hoped over time to replace the EU sales with UK custom, it had been heartbreaking to have to slash production and work hours for staff in the UK. “I’ve got about 70 people at the moment who I’ve had to ask to half their hours,” she said. “It has been horrible, absolutely horrible.”

The drastic measures are a reflection of the lack of preparation time pharma firms were given for the new Brexit rules. Other companies have also been hit by sudden trade barriers. Two weeks ago it emerged that a Welsh pharma company producing a cancer drug with a short shelf life had moved its production to Dublin to keep supplies going for patients across the EU.

Ian Price, the director of the Confederation of British Industry in Wales, said the company, which did not want to be named, had to discard 200 to 300 consignments destined for the EU because of the new Brexit trade barriers.

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Cooke said Mediwin was being forced to lay off 45 people in the UK. “We were going to invest in a site in the UK a couple of years ago we we needed to expand. That £2m investment has gone to Spain. We’ve got a fabulous new production facility which will come online in Barcelona, in two or three months time,” she said.

“Once we had the Brexit vote, we knew that we were in significant danger for a number of reasons, so our growth plans for the UK stopped almost immediately. We started investing in Barcelona. We have had to merge our main UK trading company with a Spanish group company to protect licences.”

The company had built up a booming trade in wholesale medicine supply, going from 19 employees 10 years ago, to a workforce of 150 in 2020.

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