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Health: Medicines Shortage

Volume 795: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received from representatives of pharmaceutical companies about an increase in the shortage of common medicines.

My Lords, the Department of Health and Social Care has well-established procedures to deal with medicine shortages. We work closely with relevant stakeholders, including pharmaceutical companies, to help ensure that risks to patients are minimised when they arise. Medicine shortages are an ongoing issue and we continue to introduce new strategies to help tackle this problem, including the recent introduction of a mandatory reporting requirement for industry to notify us of impending shortages.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. If Ash Soni, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, says he says never seen so many common drugs—naproxen and even aspirin, for example—affected by shortages, the complacent response from the Government seems inappropriate. It appears there may be many reasons for the shortages, including the looming Brexit deadline. Would the Minister inform the House what the Government intend to do about the export licences that the Secretary of State grants for the parallel trading of drugs? If the pound drops—let us hope it does not do so, but it certainly is a possibility—it will create shortages and profiteering. What strategy do the Government intend to follow under those circumstances?

My Lords, the production of medicines is complex and highly regulated, as the noble Baroness says, and materials and processes must meet rigorous safety and quality standards. Supply problems can arise for various reasons, such as manufacturing issues, problems with the raw ingredients, regulatory issues and batch failures. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government are doing everything in their power to ensure that contingency plans are in place to address exactly the kind of issue she has just raised.

My Lords, I am pleased that there are contingency plans in place to ship prescription medicines to ensure there is no shortage. Could the Minister confirm to the House what the Government have done to guarantee transportation of generalist and over-the-counter medicines? Will they use lorries and ferries, as with prescription medicines?

My Lords, all planning scenarios for a no-deal exit are being considered. If it is necessary to use the kind of transportation the noble Baroness mentioned, of course we will do so. For more priority medicines, other plans are being put in place, as well as the six-week stockpiles we have agreed that community pharmacists must hold.

My Lords, in view of the fact that we have to import a large percentage of our medicines and that the Minister’s department has denied there is any problem with Brexit, will she give the House a guarantee that it is looking seriously into the problem of a no-deal Brexit?

My Lords, absolutely. Having medicines for some of the most vulnerable people in our society is key and fundamental. Of course, as a government department we are doing everything we possibly can to ensure medicines reach those who need them.

My Lords, my noble friend has given us reassurances about the work that the department has been doing, and it is good to see that, in securing the additional ferry capacity, the need for all medical products—not just prescription only, but general medicines and others—has been catered for. One thing we also need to look out for are those who would seek to take advantage of the situation we face as a country to hike up prices. In 2017, the Government took powers in the health service supplies Act to make sure that, in extremis, we can not only ask for information but also impose prices where we think inappropriate pricing may be happening. Can my noble friend reassure us that, if necessary—and I hope it will not be—the department would be prepared to act?

I thank my noble friend for that question. From a personal perspective, the answer must of course be yes, and the noble Lord will know that better than I. But I am afraid I do not have that answer, and so I cannot confirm it at this point. I will have to write to my noble friend.

Can the Minister tell us exactly what new steps are being taken by the Government to face any shortage of drugs?

The Government are taking a number of steps. We have introduced the six-week stockpiling, which I have already mentioned. We are also looking at transportation issues and addressing whether there are shortages. We are working with supply chains and manufacturers to get an early indication of where these shortages may arise. I reassure the noble Lord that shortages of various drugs happen throughout the year. This is not a new phenomenon, and we are not clear that it is Brexit related.

My Lords, I want to reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, said. In the past, we have experience in this country of wholesale providers of over-the-counter drugs hoarding medicines to demand higher prices later, and the NHS had to pay up. It is right that the NHS agrees to take powers if that is found to be the case, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that.

I can confirm that. We are talking about concessionary pricing as well. However, I restate that our primary concern is to ensure that patients continue to get their medication and that community pharmacies are reimbursed fairly for the products that they use. The answer is yes.