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Contraceptives and Hormone Replacement Therapy Drugs

Volume 802: debated on Wednesday 18 March 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the shortage of supply of (1) contraceptives, and (2) hormone replacement therapy drugs, in the United Kingdom, and when they expect that the normal supply of these products will resume.

My Lords, we are aware of ongoing supply issues with some HRT drugs and a limited number of contraceptives. We are sympathetic to those affected. I am pleased to say that the supply situation for HRT started to improve at the end of February and continues to improve during this time. However, we will work closely with all suppliers and share relevant information on availability to the NHS on a regular basis to ensure that patients can access the medicines they need.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am very happy that things are improving, because a number of HRT medications and contraceptives remain unavailable until the end of this year, some patients have been told, or until they do not know when. I understand that some of the shortages are triggered by supply problems in China, with some of the components of the popular HRT patches being increasingly in demand for other types of treatment that, in their turn, have become scarce. Of course, one guesses that further disruption in China in the wake of the coronavirus will affect the production and supply of prescription drugs. Does the Minister share my concern that online pharmacies are exploiting desperate women by charging up to four times NHS prices for HRT and contraception?

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, is entirely right that supply problems persist. The NHS looks after 11,000 drugs and at any one time around 100 or 150 have supply problems. It is a great frustration to those concerned and we are cognisant that HRT has been a persistent problem for more than a year. However, the outlook is positive. I reassure the House that Covid-19 has not had an impact on the supply of HRT. We do not envisage there being a connection or a problem. I share the noble Baroness’s concerns that online pharmacies might take advantage of the situation, but it is a marketplace: it provides choice and is regulated.

My Lords, when women go to the chemists to get their prescription, they might well find two problems. The first is the one the noble Baroness mentioned—inadequacy of supply—but it is also increasingly likely that pharmacists themselves will fall ill, so not only the advice, but even the dispensing of available pharmaceuticals will be impossible because they will have fallen ill. Can the Minister tell us what conversations Her Majesty’s Government have had with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society to free up some of the normal professional regulations and requirements for exemption and insurance so that relatively recently retired chemists may come back to fill in the gaps that will undoubtedly be there and which will make many pharmacies ineffective because there is no chemist to dispense?

The noble Lord is entirely right to focus on pharmacists. I pay tribute to the important role they play in communities. Their role will be essential in the forthcoming months when enormous pressures will be put on hospitals. We will be encouraging people to avoid areas of infection. A typical pharmacy where there are two pharmacists, who might be related or even married, will clearly be under pressure. Two people working closely together are clearly an infection challenge. That is why we have engaged very closely with the pharmacy industry. The noble Lord is entirely right that the possibility of using recently retired pharmacists is being considered. Soon-to-qualify pharmacists might face early call up. Many have already been written to and there might be provisions in the forthcoming coronavirus emergency Bill to expedite the regulatory changes the noble Lord suggests.

My Lords, the Minister just told the House that HRT has been in short supply for over a year. Why have the Government not taken effective action on this before now?

The noble Baroness is entirely right to express her frustration. It is enormously frustrating for those concerned and for our medicine supplies. Medicine production is a long-term business. There was a point when HRT consumption went down, but then demand grew exactly when some production facilities had backed off their supply. It was an incredibly unfortunate combination of events that has led to this situation, but I reassure the House that we are working extremely hard to provide alternatives and to replace those most favoured products that are in short supply at the moment.

My Lords, I remind noble Lords of my declared interests. Has thought been given to whether novel therapies that might soon become available from research elsewhere in the world might be applied to the management of patients infected with coronavirus in our own country? Is the Minister content that the current regulations that govern the use of medicinal products in man are sufficiently flexible to allow for drugs that not only currently exist but might be repurposed for this, and for novel and innovative therapies, neither of which might be licensed for use in the United Kingdom at the current time, to be made available without further impediment if that was thought to be a useful intervention?

The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, is entirely right to stress this point about regulation. I assure him and the House that we are working extremely closely with Public Health England and the MHRA to ensure that there will be no regulatory hurdle that prevents the swift introduction of proven, safe products into the UK market. This is a massive priority that has had great scrutiny from both the department and Downing Street. It is one that we are focused on and will continue to focus on.