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Brexit: ministers are running out of time to secure drug supplies, industry bosses warn

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k4484 (Published 24 October 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k4484
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

Drug industry bosses have warned the government that it is running out of time to negotiate a Brexit deal that will safeguard the supply of medicines when the UK leaves the European Union.

Giving evidence to the House of Commons health select committee on 23 October, Martin Sawer, director of the Healthcare Distribution Association, warned that a no-deal scenario could lead to medicine shortages and price rises and called for emergency powers to reduce the impact on patients.

Mike Thompson, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, told the committee that it was vital to secure a deal as soon as possible to minimise disruption to patients. “We are under six months away from potentially a hard Brexit, and I think we are running out of time,” he said.

Sawer warned that patients may be forced to stockpile their own drugs if contingency measures are not in place. Without a Brexit deal, he said, emergency powers should be introduced—to allow pharmacists to switch patients’ prescriptions if shortages occur, to permit local pharmacies to share medicines, and to temporarily remove UK wholesale licences to keep more medicines in the country.

Sawer acknowledged that removing wholesale licences could push up the price of generic drugs. “It would be a catastrophic time for medicines supply,” he said. “I’m not pulling any punches, and I think we have to think about emergency powers.”

When pressed by the committee as to whether patients could be given different drugs without a consultation with their GP under such emergency powers, Sawer said, “Correct. We need politicians to understand that there could be consequences of a no deal. We believe we are going to be in a difficult position if there is not a deal by Christmas.

“We are not suggesting anybody needs to stockpile outside the supply chain yet, but come January that might be a different picture.”

Thompson warned that stockpiling alone could not guarantee the supply of medicines in a no-deal scenario, as some drugs had short shelf lives and required certain temperature control. “That is why we urgently need a deal,” he said.

Appearing before the committee later that day, England’s health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, was bullish that the government would secure a deal, saying he was confident that current planning processes were on track to ensure the “unhindered flow” of medicines and supply of medical devices if a deal was not secured.

“I am confident that, currently, everyone is doing what they need to do,” he said. “Of course, there is a huge amount more effort that’s needed between now and the end of March in a no deal scenario, but I’m confident we can get there.”