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Northern Ireland: Supply of Medicines

Volume 816: debated on Thursday 9 December 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure the uninterrupted supply of all medicines to Northern Ireland from the end of this year.

My Lords, the people of Northern Ireland must have access to the full range of medicines available to people elsewhere in the UK. We are currently in intensive discussions with the Commission to see whether we can establish a consensual way of resolving the current difficulties in this area, among many others. Some progress has been made, but agreement has not been reached.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that Her Majesty’s Government have a unique and inescapable obligation to ensure the flow of medicines to all parts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, without disruption or barriers? Does he agree that the imperatives of health exceed any contractual obligations that we might have with partners and friends? Does he also agree that the Government would not only be justified in taking but are required to take all necessary steps to ensure that medicines continue to flow to Northern Ireland, as now?

My Lords, I very much agree with the question posed by my noble friend. There is obviously an obligation on this Government, as on any other, to provide medicines throughout the United Kingdom. Indeed, we would argue—and I think that it would be accepted—that the provision of medicines is an essential state function, as set out in Article 1 of the protocol. That is why it is important to find a solution that respects that.

My Lords, it has been suggested in some quarters that a deal on medicines could be imminent and would result in the EU changing legislation to ensure that medicines, including generics and innovative drugs, could be licensed by the UK legislator for GB licence holders so that they could flow freely to Northern Ireland. When will the Minister and the Government sign up to this approach and create the momentum that could lead to agreement in other areas?

My Lords, there are a number of difficulties in this highly technical area of the supply of medicines. We have been looking at the proposals made by the Commission. The problem set out by the noble Baroness is not the only issue that needs to be resolved. At the moment, we are not confident that what is on the table would resolve all the issues, but we continue to talk.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the grace period to allow medicines to come to Northern Ireland from Great Britain is about to run out and that that will have devastating consequences for the supply of over-the-counter medicines and essential drugs for hospitals for people in Northern Ireland? What will he say to people in Northern Ireland to bring certainty on this vital issue? Does he accept that medicine should never have been part of the protocol in the first place? Why was it?

My Lords, the grace period formally expires at the end of this year, but we are also in a standstill agreed between the two sides in July that keeps current arrangements running. It is our expectation that the current grace period arrangements will continue beyond the end of the year as long as we are in constructive discussions with the EU. The existence of the grace period has meant that some of the supply difficulties that we had earlier in the year have changed, but obviously we need to find a permanent solution to this problem.

My Lords, surely it is vital to give certainty to the people of Northern Ireland on healthcare. Does the Minister agree that, in taking his decision tomorrow during the negotiations, now is the time to put pragmatism before ideology?

My Lords, we would love to find an agreement if one were available. We think that the proposal that we made to take medicines out of the protocol entirely would be the simplest way of solving this problem, but we continue to look at the proposals that the EU has put on the table. At the moment, we do not have the necessary detail or understanding of the texts to enable us to accept these proposals, but we continue to talk.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the simplest and probably best solution would be if there were mutual recognition between the United Kingdom and the EU of the authorisations of the European Medicines Agency and our MHRA? That would be a bilateral, trade-related solution that would also serve the needs of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, that might indeed be a solution; it has not been part of the discussions so far, and I think that the regulators on both sides guard their discretion closely and the ability to proceed at the speeds that they think best, as we have seen this year on vaccine licensing.

My Lords, there can be no question of any interruption to the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland. This is urgent for the UK, but we should remember that the EU needs to resolve this issue for Malta and Cyprus as well. Patients, their families and clinicians need certainty. Will the Minister confirm that he is not taking a “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” approach? The EU needs to resolve this issue on behalf of member states and is likely to present further suggestions imminently. Does he accept that supply of medicines should be dealt with as a priority and, if necessary, separately from other Northern Ireland protocol issues?

My Lords, I repeat that the Government will not allow there to be any disruption to supply of medicines to Northern Ireland; that is an absolute obligation on us. Of course, medicines are only one of many problems that we have put on the table. They are a special case, if you like, of the issue of supply of goods more generally to Northern Ireland, so the matter cannot be seen entirely in isolation but needs to be solved as part of many of the other difficulties on the protocol.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister will be mindful of the fact that I have a family horticultural business. Before the House met today, I was on a call with the National Office of Animal Health, which emphasised to me that animal health medicines are also part and parcel of this package. Is he similarly negotiating for those?

My noble friend is absolutely right to raise this important aspect of the question. Although veterinary medicines are part of the general discussions that we are having with the EU, they are by no means as far advanced as those on broader medicines. Unfortunately, we are some way from a solution on that matter.

My Lords, important as medicines and trade are, does the Minister recognise that the main challenge of the Northern Ireland protocol is a possible constitutional crisis?

My Lords, we are well aware of that aspect; we are well aware that the protocol is not working for the people of Northern Ireland. There are societal and economic difficulties, identity is being eroded, and it is compounded by trade diversion. We need to restore the balance if we are to avoid a loss of confidence in the institutions established under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and that is what we are working to try to ensure.

My Lords, it is astonishing that the Minister confessed in the answer to a previous question that this is just one of many problems arising from the agreement. He is the Minister who negotiated that agreement—every aspect of it. When is he going to confess that he messed it up?

My Lords, it is well known by now that I was the Minister who negotiated this agreement; it is also well known that the agreement required careful handling, which it has not received during this year, and that is why we face so many of the problems that we are now trying to deal with.

My Lords, the Minister forgot to answer the second question from the noble Lord, Lord Dodds: why were medicines there in the first place?

My Lords, as I said in answer to an earlier question, medicines are a special case of the general issue of supply of goods into Northern Ireland. As the protocol covers that general issue, it includes medicines. It has created special difficulties that we are trying to resolve.

My Lords, on the supply of medicines, I understand that one issue in these negotiations is that there is further information which apparently is not being provided to the UK Government. Could my noble friend elucidate on this a bit more because, obviously, we all want agreement to be achieved as soon as possible?

My noble friend is absolutely right that in an area as technical and complicated as this, it is obviously essential that we have full access to all the detail, all the potential legislation and all the potential guidance issued. At the moment, we do not have that. We have not been able to see it all, but I hope that we might be able to do so before too long. It is obviously not possible for us to reach agreement unless we have access to that level of detail.