Health chiefs are preparing for hospitals to run out of imported food for patient meals if the UK crashes out of the EU without an agreement.
Caterers have been told to hunt for “substitute foodstuffs to maintain nutritional balance” of meals, amid fears that supplies will be cut off by a no-deal Brexit, a government letter reveals.
Schools, the armed forces and “any kind of mass catering” will also be affected, a committee of MPs has been told.
The head of the body that represents catering associations for the public sector, said he was “very, very concerned” that supplies would be hit, even if the back-up plans worked for a few weeks.
Andy Jones, of Public Sector 100, told The Observer that about 40 per cent of food for hospital patients is imported from the EU, including chicken and salad, much of it “just-in-time” to ensure speedy delivery.
“It is not just of case of whether we will be able to get enough, if there is no deal, but also whether we will be able to afford it,” he said.
“Good food is vital for patients. Food is like medicine. If patients don’t get it then in some cases they will not get home.
“One thing we will see I think is disappearing choice. People will just be given what we can get our hands on.”
Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative chair of the all-party health select committee, which was sent the letter, said: “It is becoming ever clearer that we are not just facing a shortage of drugs but also many other things that hospitals need to function.
“Food is one them. The cost and work involved in dealing is staggering. Surely there is a better use of time and money.”
The letter, released to the committee, has been sent by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to all hospitals, saying the potential food shortage will be “managed centrally”.
It reads: “Instructions will be given to major producers of patient meals to put in place contingency arrangements, to account for short supply of certain ingredients.
“Guidance will be provided to hospital caterers, procurers of patient food and catering services, and PFI providers on actions to take in preparing to use substitute foodstuffs to maintain nutritional balance of patient menu/meal offerings.”
In recent evidence to the committee, Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS providers, the trade association for NHS trusts, explained: “It is a widespread issue – it will not just be about catering for hospitals.
“This will be any kind of mass catering, so schools and the armed forces. We will be looking across the piece.”
Ms Cordery said the preparations would not be simply for a matter of weeks, adding: “We are talking about contingency arrangements over a period of time.”
And, asked about medicine shortages, she told the MPs: “I have a number of worst nightmares actually.
“The timing and the timescales are critical. There has not been sufficient time for national‑level planning, frankly, although it is speeding up now.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “As part of our contingency planning, we are taking all necessary steps with NHS England, suppliers and pharmaceutical companies to ensure patients continue to receive the high standards of care they expect.”
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.