Medicine shortages are currently making headlines. The Guardian and Forbes articles both describe UK drug shortages as “worse than ever”.
Katherine Hignett writes in Forbes:
“British pharmacists are struggling to get their hands on certain medicines for cancer, epilepsy, diabetes and menopause as drug supply issues intensify in the country.”
Already in 2019, there were warnings of supply-chain risk to vital treatment for life-threatening diseases. My first Kent and Surrey Bylines article on this topic highlighted the lack of publicity on an issue which affects a vast portion of the UK population. In that piece, I wrote about the impact of the loss of access to two vital European agencies: the European Atomic Energy Community, EURATOM and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
Current UK medicine shortages were predicted
As part of an anti-Brexit protest group, we held demonstrations to draw attention to the effect of a hard Brexit on medicine supply. From leaving the EMA, to the increased transport costs due to border checks, and to the decreased buying power of the UK as a market of only 67 million consumers, we warned of the risks for patients. Why did the UK choose to leave the EMA which can take advantage of the purchasing power of 400+ million consumers and has access to the newest pharmaceutical research?
The transport problems affecting supplies are, to a great extent, caused by leaving the EU’s single market which guaranteed frictionless trade amongst EU members. The pharmaceutical industry is no exception.
Of course, Brexit is not the only issue causing medicine shortages. The pandemic has played a big part in the supply issues of certain pharmaceutical products. However, causes of the crisis are thought to include the plummeting purchasing value of the pound since the Brexit referendum and government policy to tax manufacturers. This raises costs and reduces the NHS’s ability to source medicines abroad. Around 70% of the vital medicines the UK needs are made in the EU.
Post-Brexit UK uniquely vulnerable to supply shock
Covid and the Ukraine war also caused global issues with drug supply, but looking at comparisons between countries, the UK seems to suffer more than its neighbours. From the start of 2022 to the end of 2023, the British Generic Manufacturers Association (BGMA) data show that shortages have doubled. By mid-December last year, nearly 100 products were on the shortage list. For Mark Samuels, the boss of BGMA, which represents the UK end of an industry that provides four out of five drugs prescribed by the NHS, Brexit has been a miserable experience. Since Brexit there has been almost zero investment in the UK generics industry compared with £4bn in Europe, with manufacturing output down by one-third in the decade to 2021.
According to Martin McKee, professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine writing in the British Medical Journal:
“Every country has been hit by supply chain disruptions, due to Covid and geopolitics, but, as with most other walks of life, Brexit adds to the problems.”
In the Guardian, Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, reports that her organisation is deeply concerned by the number of patients contacting their organisation:
“Last year many people shared with us, via Breast Cancer Now’s helpline, that they’d been facing difficulties accessing their hormone treatment including letrozole, anastrozole and tamoxifen, causing them huge worry and anxiety. Trying to track down a treatment by travelling to a number of different pharmacies is an added burden for patients at an already difficult time.”
We all know that mental health and a positive attitude, in addition to the right medication play a vital role in the prognosis of cancer sufferers. It doesn’t take much imagination to know that issues with getting the right drugs cause anxieties cancer patients could well do without.
A vital issue: consider writing to your MP
Our beloved NHS is struggling with staff shortages, underfunding and increases in cost of medicines.
If you are a sufferer of cancer, epilepsy, diabetes, kidney disease, or high blood pressure who depends on medicines to live a healthy life, please write to your MP to inform them of the issues you are facing. This issue will not go away by itself. I for one will go and lie down on the freezing pavement outside parliament on 31 January again. The title ‘Death by Brexit’ might be exaggerated but that is exactly how some patients feel.
We cannot undo the harm the pandemic has caused but we can ensure that the government does its best to safeguard its citizens. This government has neglected its duty of care.
Instead of egregious examples of ministers using the public money to line the pockets of those in the VIP lane, funds could be dedicated to a special cross-party committee to work on a strategy for pandemics or other natural disasters. Pandemics and climate change related disasters are highly likely. Our government must prepare.
Secondly, the government must agree to collaborate with its neighbours in the EU on a cross European strategy on medicine and health. That should, ideally, be applying to rejoin the European Medicine Agency and EURATOM. Instead of spending millions on transporting asylum seekers to Rwanda and breaking international law, the PM should spend public money on UK citizens suffering from poverty, long NHS waiting lists, crumbling schools, the housing crisis and medicine shortages.