Health department cannot guarantee 'supply of medicines' after Brexit, MPs warn

'Government cannot afford to drag its feet on this critical issue,' says Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Friday 12 October 2018 11:18
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Vital drug shortages could become more likely when the UK quits the European Union, MPs are warning after health ministers were unable to give guarantees on how they would prevent fallout from a ”no deal” Brexit.

A report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on medicines shortages last year found no evidence that the government was adequately prepared for similar disruption from leaving the EU.

The report said it was “worrying” that the Department “could not assure us of its plans to safeguard the supply of medicines after the UK has exited the European Union”.

Unexpected increases in the prices of certain generic drugs cost the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds last year and despite signs in June 2017 and the government was “slow to take action to manage the financial impact”, the report said.

A National Audit Report, published earlier this year, found concessionary spending was £315 million in 2017/18, compared to £46 million in the previous financial year.

The Department of Health and Social Care sets monthly prices for what primary care pharmacies can spend, but concessionary reimbursement prices can be granted if the drugs can only be found at a higher price.

Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the committee, said increases in prices of generics last year “should have served as a wake-up call” for Government.

She said: “While the Department of Health and Social Care now has new powers at its disposal, it could not explain to us how these will better enable it to handle similar price increases and related shortages in future. This is unacceptable and doubly worrying in the context of uncertainty over supply chains after Brexit, particularly for medicines with a short shelf-life.

“Government cannot afford to drag its feet on this critical issue, either now or after Brexit. By the end of this year we expect it to demonstrate it has a clear plan to ensure patients can access the medicines they need, and to mitigate the impact of price rises on desperately stretched NHS resources.”

The committee was told Brexit “is not expected to affect where the NHS obtains it medicines” with many made outside the European Union.

However the Department said it was looking into contingency planning for general threats to supply, including events such as strikes in other countries, the report said.

It added: “The Department told us that different medicines, for example those with a short shelf-life, require different solutions, so there is no ‘one size fits all’ plan. The Department was unable, however, to provide us with any detail of its plans, or to assure us and the public about the supply of medicines in the event of a ‘no deal’ exit.”

The committee said challenges to the supply of short shelf-life medicines were of particular concern.

It called on the Government to share its plan for maintaining the supply of medicines before and after Brexit and to “confirm how it will ensure that patients will be able to obtain the medicines they need” by December.

More than 850,000 people have signed The Independents’ Final Say petition calling for Theresa May to guarantee a second referendum to ensure these issues are resolved before exiting the EU.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The Government is confident of reaching a deal with the EU that benefits patients and the NHS is preparing for all situations. We are working closely with partners to ensure adequate stockpiles are in place for all medicines which may be affected in the event of a no deal Brexit.

“The department is working closely with pharmaceutical companies to minimise costs and we have received good engagement from the industry so far.”

Additional reporting by PA

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