Brexit raises the risk of dangerous delays in the supply of medicines

More clarity is needed about how the supply of medicines might be affected by a ‘no deal’ Brexit

More clarity is needed about how the supply of medicines might be affected by a ‘no deal’ Brexit

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With the UK due to leave the European Union (EU) on 29 March next year, issues about medicines are starting to emerge.

When new health and social care secretary Matt Hancock appeared before the Commons health and social care select committee at the end of July, he said NHS England was working with industry on options regarding the potential need to stockpile medicines and blood products in case of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

Delays in obtaining some medicines could cause patients discomfort or irritation, but for other medicines the delays could be serious, even life-threatening, so this appears to be a good idea. 

Seamless supply

On 23 August, Mr Hancock wrote to health and care providers to inform them of government preparations for a potential ‘no deal’ Brexit, including a new scheme to ‘to ensure a sufficient and seamless supply of medicines in the UK’.

The government’s medicines supply contingency planning programme forms part of a series of documents containing guidance on how to prepare for Brexit if there is no deal.

In the letter, Mr Hancock says a cross-government planning scenario ‘will ensure the UK has an additional six weeks supply of medicines in case imports from the EU through certain routes are affected.’

No hoarding or stockpiling

He says pharmaceutical companies should ensure they have an additional six weeks supply of medicines in the UK on top of their normal stock levels, but that UK hospitals, GPs and community pharmacies should not hoard or stockpile additional drugs ‘beyond their business as usual stock levels’ and should maintain their usual levels of stock.

He adds that ‘there is also no need for clinicians to write longer NHS prescriptions’, further clarifying that ‘local stockpiling is not necessary and any incidences involving over-ordering of medicines will be investigated’.

Mr Hancock says ‘clinicians should advise patients that the government has plans in place to ensure a continued supply of medicines to patients from the moment we leave the EU. Patients will not need and should not seek to store additional medicines at home’.

No reassurance

Confused? I certainly am. After initially suggesting the NHS would stockpile medicines, it appears that Mr Hancock is now saying that the NHS should not stockpile but that pharmaceutical companies should.

This is problematic. UK pharmaceutical companies do not make all of our medicines, so how can they stockpile them?

I rely on  many medicines to keep me alive and control my symptoms. The lack of clarity on this is making me nervous. I haven’t heard anything that reassures me that these medicines will still be freely available in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

Time-critical medicines

I am sure we will still be able to get them - it is the risk of delays that concern me. Some of my medicines are time-critical, and if I don’t get them on time I become unwell very quickly.

UK pharmaceutical companies also have several other Brexit-related issues to contend with, namely that they have already been cut out of medicines contracts seven months before the Brexit date.

The European Medicines Agency – which has already started relocating from London to Amsterdam, with the loss of 900 London-based roles – has said that due to the long lead times needed to assess new medicines it can no longer award contracts to British companies as there is no guarantee that their experts would be available throughout the evaluation period.

Minimum disruption

What we urgently need now are assurances that the medicines our patients need will still be freely available with minimum disruption if ‘no deal’ is the final Brexit outcome. I would also like to know what the plans are not only for England but also for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as Brexit affects all four countries.

The government may say that patients do not need to stockpile medicines at home, but many may be concerned about this. Hopefully more clarity will soon be forthcoming so that we can explain what is happening to patients who ask and put their minds at rest.

Matt Griffiths is visiting professor of prescribing and medicines management at Birmingham City University



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