The government knew more about the pharmaceutical supply chain in the UK at the time the Covid-19 pandemic struck than at ‘any time in history’, the former health secretary Matt Hancock has claimed.

While providing evidence to the ongoing UK Covid-19 Inquiry, Mr Hancock said that work done for a no-deal Brexit had meant that when the pandemic hit, the government ‘had relationships’ with pharmaceutical suppliers and ‘the data to know exactly who had what available and where’.

And he claimed this was ‘the difference between running out and not running out of drugs in intensive care in the pandemic’.

His comments came on Tuesday while being questioned on the impact of Brexit on the government’s preparedness for a pandemic, and come amid ongoing concerns about the current burden for pharmacists and patients over medicines supply issues.

It was highlighted during the inquiry meeting that the government’s Pandemic Flu Readiness Board had not met for a whole year because of a ‘reprioritisation in 2019 for a potential no-deal EU exit’. It was supposed to meet every six-eight weeks ‘until the key outputs of the work programme were delivered’.

Mr Hancock said he did ‘not recall being aware’ of this, but claimed that ‘work under the board’s guidance continued’.

He then went on to suggest that work done on securing and safeguarding medicinal supply chains related to a no-deal EU exit ‘was the difference between running out of medicines in the peak of the pandemic and not running out’.

‘We came extremely close, within hours, of running out of medicines for intensive care during the pandemic,’ said Mr Hancock.

He said the work done in preparation for a no-deal Brexit therefore ‘became extremely useful in saving lives during the pandemic’.

‘At the point at which the pandemic struck, because of the no-deal Brexit work, we knew more about the pharmaceutical supply chain in the UK than at any time in history,’ he added.

‘We had relationships with the pharmaceutical suppliers, and the data to know exactly who had what available and where, and the extent of that information was the difference between running out and not running out of drugs in intensive care in the pandemic.

‘Now, that, of course, wasn't the intention of the work, but it was the consequence of the work.’

Mr Hancock suggested that it was difficult to assess whether the stopping of pandemic preparations or the increased knowledge on medicines supplies had a greater overall impact.

‘When it comes to the question of the overall impact of Brexit, absolutely the paperwork is very clear that some of the preparation work was stopped and a small number of people were moved off that work,’ he told the inquiry.

‘On the other hand, we were better prepared in terms of supply chains.

‘Who knows the overall impact and which of those balances in the scales is greater. I'm afraid it's impossible to know.’

But the former health secretary’s comments come as those across the pharmacy sector continue to sound the alarm over medicines supply issues.

Claire Anderson, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: ‘Covid-19 created a huge challenge for the medicines supply chain and pharmacists went above and beyond so that patients could access the medicines they needed.’

But she added that pharmacy teams ‘continue to find themselves at the sharp end of medicines shortages’ and are ‘spending hours tracking down medicines, which could otherwise be spent on patient-facing care’.

‘One of the lessons learned from the pandemic must be how we can better enable pharmacists to use their professional judgement to manage medicines supply and ensure patients get the treatment they need,’ she told The Pharmacist.

Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, said: ‘The pandemic hit in 2020. Apparently, according to Matt Hancock, the government knew then about the likelihood of medicine shortages and the dangers that posed.

‘Three years on, and the pharmacies are having to deal every single day with lack of supply. If anything in some areas, the situation is more critical than it was then.’

She added there was ‘no sign of a concerted effort to tackle the problem’.

‘Lives are being put at risk and nothing is being done about it,’ she told The Pharmacist.

Meanwhile, director of corporate affairs at the National Pharmacy Association Gareth Jones, said it ‘certainly was a considerable challenge to maintain supplies to patients at the peak of the crisis’ within primary care.

Just last week, new data suggested more than one in 10 people have had to visit multiple pharmacies to obtain their prescription medicines in the past year.

The new statistics from AI-powered supply chain management platform 7bridges, also showed around 8% of patients in the UK have been forced to leave their local area and travel as far as 10 miles to collect their medicines.

Meanwhile, a recent survey by Community Pharmacy England – formerly known as PSNC – found the majority of pharmacists have experienced aggression from patients due to medicine supply issues.

Also during the inquiry meeting on Tuesday, the former health secretary said he was ‘profoundly sorry for every death’ caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.