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Brexit: Medicine Supply and NHS Staffing

Volume 799: debated on Thursday 5 September 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of a no-deal Brexit on (1) the supply of medicines, and (2) the staffing of the National Health Service.

My Lords, we recognise that leaving the EU could affect a wide range of areas across the health and care system. We are doing everything possible to prepare, and our plans should help to ensure that the supply of medicines remains uninterrupted. We continue to monitor staffing levels, and we are working to ensure that there will continue to be sufficient staff to deliver the high-quality services on which the public rely.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. I suspect that this Question is an appropriate one, given the debate we are going to have later. Given that the majority of the House is trying to save the Government from their foolishness of crashing out of the EU, these are very important questions because they affect people’s lives and their futures.

I have two questions. What is the department doing to sort out the fact that the Home Office is still completely failing to deliver how settled status can be offered? We are losing European staff from the NHS, including senior and experienced doctors, at a huge rate, which will mean enormous problems. Secondly, on medicines, what measures have the Government put in place to ensure that the shortage protocol does not negatively impact patient safety, and how are the Government going to prevent the UK from becoming a third-tier market for medicines and ensure that we can access medicines and new drugs in a timely fashion if we crash out of the EU?

I thank the noble Baroness for her comprehensive questions. Regarding the EU settlement scheme, we are very pleased that there are now record levels of EU nationals working in the NHS and the social care system. We hugely value their contribution. We need them, and we want them to stay. EU nationals working in the NHS can obtain their long-term status in the UK through the EU settlement scheme, and we are supporting NHS Employers in promoting the EU settlement scheme. On 15 August, the Home Office said that 1 million people had been granted settlement status. Where there have been challenges to working through that, there is support to address it. The EU settlement scheme statistics confirm that not a single person has been refused the status that they applied for. About three-quarters of people receive that status without the Home Office needing to ask for additional evidence on the length of residence; we are checking that is working as it should.

When it comes to medicines, we continue to implement a multi-layered approach to minimise any disruptions of medicines and medical products in a no-deal scenario to ensure that patients will have access to the medicines they need. There are about 7,000 prescription-only and pharmacy-only medicines, and we have been working very closely with suppliers, asking them to hold at least six weeks of stock. The shortage protocol will be led by clinicians, to ensure that patients can access the medicines that they need and are not put at risk. Any decision about this will be made between the patient and their clinician, to ensure that it is appropriate for the care of the individual patient in question.

My Lords, the Government have claimed that they have done a detailed account of what would happen if we were to leave the European Union, as far as the health service is concerned. Why have they not published that detailed account, why do we not know any of those details and why is the whole country being kept in the dark on all these issues? The Minister has the facts. Can we please have them now, so that we know what we are debating about?

I do not believe that the noble Lord is presenting an accurate picture of the case. We have been very clear with the public, and a lot of information has been published on the MHRA website, on GOV.UK, on and in a number of other places, regarding the information about the analysis of the impact of no deal on patients and on the NHS. We have been very clear about the risks that we think there may be to the supply of medicines due to temporary disruption at the border and the mitigating measures that we have taken to ensure that the supply will continue uninterrupted to patients and to the healthcare system. If the noble Lord wishes to have more information, I am sure that he would be very happy to write to me, and I will place a copy of my reply in the Library.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is aware that virtually every pharmacist and every GP is experiencing dire shortages of certain medicines already. If the Government have such a good alternative plan for a no-deal Brexit, why do they not bring forward those plans to deal with the shortage that patients are facing today?

At any given time, there are about 100 to 150 medicine shortages within our system. There is a team specifically set up in the Department for Health and Social Care to deal with these shortages. There is no evidence whatsoever that the shortages within the medicine system at the moment are related to Brexit. I work to respond to those shortages every day. The system that we have set up to respond to the potential risks of no deal—which we do not want to happen—is prospective. We are confident that it will be able to respond to any potential border disruption on the short straits.

My Lords, what proportion of our pharmaceuticals are manufactured in the UK? Have Brexit deal negotiators discussed pharmaceutical supplies and, if so, what was the outcome? How many people will be immediately affected if a no-deal Brexit is the final outcome?

I do not have the data for the proportion manufactured in the UK, but I can tell her that there are 7,000 prescription-only and pharmacy medicines with an EU touchpoint which we believe we need to import into the UK at the point of no deal. We have been working very closely with those suppliers, asking them to hold a six-week stock, over and above the usual buffer stock that they hold in case of a potential shortage, which they always hold a risk of. We have also put in place a number of other multi-layered mitigation measures, which include securing capacity for re-routing freight. We have also put in place a number of other measures, such as providing assurance of readiness for logistics and supply chains to meet new customs and border requirements. We have been working to ensure that we communicate that to all those along the supply chains, in the NHS system and in the pharmacy chain.