Duty to have regard to the life sciences sector and access to new medicines and treatments

Part of Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill (Programme) (No. 2) – in the House of Commons at 5:00 pm on 15th March 2017.

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Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Health) 5:00 pm, 15th March 2017

I, too, welcome the principle of the Bill. We have discussed it in a lot of detail as it has gone through Parliament, and the legislative consent motion was passed by the Scottish Parliament last month. I welcome the fact that the Minister listened to our previous discussions, and I therefore welcome Lords amendment 1, which deals with specials—individually produced medicines, usually within dermatology. While the numbers involved may be small, the costs are often eye-watering. In Scotland, that process is controlled through a procurement method, but it was certainly clear that NHS England was simply being ripped off, and I am glad to see that that is being addressed.

I also welcome Lords amendment 6, which will bring in, as I suggested, a consultation on how to maintain the quality of products. We discussed surgical gloves as a perfect example. People talk about quality marks, but they are often simply manufacturing quality marks, not necessarily a mark of suitability for the task. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency could be involved, or there could be some other process, but it is important that we do not drive down quality by trying to drive down price.

The main thing that we are discussing is the Government’s plan to disagree with Lords amendment 3, which would insert a new clause. The NICE board is today discussing this extra layer behind NICE. We are talking about drugs that NICE has already decided are cost-effective, and giving NHS England the ability to delay them further without negotiation. The amount antivirals—such as sofosbuvir for hepatitis C—that hepatologists can prescribe is rationed, even though we know that the most important group to treat are those who are well—not those who are almost bed-bound or near the end of life with cirrhosis—because they are the ones out in society spreading hepatitis C to other people.

It is important to consider the delay, which has two aspects. The first relates to very expensive drugs, which are usually for rare diseases. Looking back, almost none of the drugs that have got through in recent years would pass the new limit. Secondly, the total of £20 million means that regardless of how effective a drug is, perhaps for a common disease, it would not get through. If someone comes up with a wonder drug for type 2 diabetes, it would hit the slowing mechanism if it cost more than £20 million because of the sheer number of people that we would be dealing with.

Justin Madders mentioned the impact of our withdrawal from the European Medicines Agency, but while he focused on the impact on the pharmaceutical industry, the impact on the patient is much bigger. Drugs are launched in America and Europe due to the sheer scale of the market, and countries such as Canada and Australia wait longer. The UK will also wait a little longer because we will no longer be part of a market of 500 million people.

The UK may also be seen as a hostile market, because it takes three to five years for cancer drugs to get into the NHS. As other doctors in this place will know, our patients face a delay in accessing new drugs, and anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. Pharmaceutical companies will simply think, “Well, we’re not going to get into the NHS for five years, so let’s go and do Australia and Canada. We’ll come back and deal with the UK later.” That delay to licensing in the UK would be a real problem, and it would extend to Scotland, too, because at the moment licensing is a UK-wide process. The drugs would therefore not be available to us outside the European Medicines Agency.

This issue is also important to UK research. If we fall so far behind that we do not use what is considered standard treatment, we will not be able to take part in trials of standard plus new. There is an absolute need to control the cost of drugs, but perhaps we need different discussions with pharmaceutical companies about how drugs come on. We need something more radical than this to find the sweet spot between the companies getting a return on their money, the NHS controlling the cost and patients getting access.

We also need to think about realistic medicine. Not every patient even wants access to the newest chemotherapy, and perhaps we need some hard discussions, and to be much more open with patients about what a drug will and will not do.

Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 3.

The House divided:

Ayes 288, Noes 241.

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