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My Lords, the Department for Health and Social Care is doing everything possible to prepare for an exit from the European Union, whatever the circumstances. We have worked with trade bodies, product suppliers and the health and care system throughout the UK and have made great progress towards ensuring continuity of supply to the whole of the UK and its Crown dependencies. I reassure patients that our plans to ensure the uninterrupted supply of medicines and medical products when we leave the EU are as solid as possible.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. This Question was prompted by the National Audit Office report published last week, which justified considerable concern among NHS workers and patients about the availability of basic medicines if the UK crashes out of the European Union.
I wish to raise two specific concerns with the Minister. It seems likely that the availability of the flu vaccine will be affected by a no-deal exit. Andrew Goddard, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, said:
“I can’t … say, ‘Don’t worry, no deal will be fine, no one is going to come to any harm, no one is going to run out of medicines.’ What we can see is we’re likely to not have enough flu vaccine … and that is likely to have an impact on the NHS”.
So will the Minister inform the House whether the department has a plan to deal with this eventuality and, if so, what it is? Secondly, what is the plan for the availability of medicines and treatments that cannot be stockpiled, such as isotopes, which are vital for cancer treatment and which by definition have a short shelf life?
The noble Baroness makes a very fair point about concerns about easily diminished medicines such as vaccines and isotopes. I reassure her that plans are very well advanced to provide adequate stocks. The Government have procured a buffer stock of 400,000 adult vaccines, and a large number of measures have been put in place, including the use of air freight, the search for alternative vaccines where necessary and the central stockpiling of very large numbers of medical supplies.
On isotopes, the Government recognise the concerns raised over the transport of products with short lives such as radioisotopes, which is why we have put in place a range of measures. These plans are being developed in close collaboration with the relevant manufacturers, NHS experts and other relevant departments.
My Lords, in my local pharmacy there is a poster on the wall asking patients not to blame pharmacy staff for the current shortages of medicines and medical devices. While accepting that it is not the pharmacies’ fault, can the Minister say whose fault it is?
The noble Baroness makes a very fair point that touches on the challenge of medical supplies that we live with whatever the circumstances, whether Brexit exists or not. Medical shortages happen and are part of the life of the NHS. If anything, this preparation for a no-deal Brexit has shone a light on our arrangements for medical supplies, and they have never been in better shape. One of the advantages of the process that we have gone through is to improve the circumstances. However, as the noble Baroness pointed out, shortages do happen in every country in Europe, including Britain. But I predict that these will happen less and less because of the investment of time and resources into understanding our medical supplies.
My Lords, on precisely that point, my noble friend will be aware that, as he said, shortages of medicines are occurring across Europe. That was highlighted in the latter part of last year when a survey of 1,600 hospital pharmacists across Europe found that 92% were experiencing shortages, particularly of antibiotics, vaccines and cancer drugs. So this is an opportunity to secure greater long-term resilience in medicine supply in this country if we work with other Governments across Europe. Will the Government commit to doing that?
The Government are working very closely with European partners on the supply of medicines. As my noble friend will be aware, a large proportion of the medical supplies in this country originate from our European partners, and therefore that collaboration is absolutely essential.
My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. Are Her Majesty’s Government able to confirm that, whatever the nature of our exit from the European Union, they will not allow the clinical trials regulation to become an impediment to the orderly flow of medicines and medical devices?
Clinical trials are one area of particular concern for the supply of medicines, which has therefore been an area of great focus. Special measures have been put in place to ensure the adequate supply of medicines to ensure that existing medical trials can continue whatever the circumstances, including in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
My Lords, the Minister may be aware that there has been an extreme shortage of EpiPens, which treat anaphylactic shocks and severe allergic reactions. Will the Minister assure the House that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, significant attention will be given to ensure that enough EpiPens are available for the treatment of anaphylactic shocks and allergic reactions?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for bringing to the House’s attention the shortage of EpiPens. It is not a situation I am aware of in particular, but I reassure her that medical devices have exactly the same scrutiny and focus as medicines, and that they will be very much part of the process of ensuring sufficient supplies in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
My Lords, can my noble friend help me? I cannot understand who these wicked people are who noble Lords opposite think would try to hold up the supply of these vital drugs and other materials. Why would they do it? What would be their motive? Who are they? Who are these mysterious and wicked people who will be so angry about Brexit that they will want to take it out on sick people in the British Isles?
The Government are aware that there is a high degree of public concern on this important issue. We are also aware that the supply of medicines and medical devices is an extremely complicated process, which may have been overlooked in the past. However, thanks to the dry run in March and the ongoing efforts of officials, which I commend and pay tribute to, it has never been in better shape.