NHS: Drug Shortages - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:39 pm on 17 January 2024.

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Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 3:39, 17 January 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what is their response to the reported shortages of NHS drugs.

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Medicine supply chains are highly regulated and complex. Supply disruption is a common issue that affects countries all around the world. The department has a range of well-established processes and tools to help prevent and mitigate risk to patients. Most supply issues can be managed with minimal disruption to patients. We work closely with industry, the NHS and others to prevent shortages and resolve any issues that may arise.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour

My Lords, I am sorry to say that I find that Answer very complacent. We are talking about drugs for the treatment of cancer and comments from the pharmaceutical industry that the situation is the worst it has ever been, with cancer patients and others seriously at risk. Surely the Government should do something to ease the anxiety of people who are seriously ill and depend on these drugs for their lives and their safety.

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I assure the noble Lord that a specific team, the medical supply team, works to manages this across the piece. It is a complex area, as we have said. There are 1,000 notifications a year about supply shortages—that has been consistent over the last so many years—that the team works to resolve. I am sure that, as this debate progresses, we will talk about some of the issues, including getting the MHRA to expedite regulatory approval, working with alternative suppliers, buying internationally where needed—we did that very well last year on strep A—and, where really necessary, introducing serious shortage protocols. It is an issue that we take very seriously, and we are managing it.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

My Lords, “may” is the wrong word; there is a shortage at this point in time, certainly from the inquiries I have made. Is it not time that we had another look at the existing procedures on recompensing drug manufacturing and maybe producing a new version of the PPRS, which worked extremely well in its time?

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Actually, we recently reached a new agreement with the drug suppliers on this. I think we were all pleased to do that, and it will ensure we continue to get continuity of supply. I have quizzed the team at length on this and asked it to sit down with the British Generic Manufacturers Association, which produced these figures, specifically to understand where there are differences, because I must be honest: the team does not recognise those numbers. We did not see an increase over the last few years. Where there are specific instances, such as ADHD, which I worked with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, on recently, remedial actions are in place to ensure we can manage through the supply issues.

Photo of Lord Cunningham of Felling Lord Cunningham of Felling Labour

My Lords, will the noble Earl please focus—

Noble Lords:


Photo of Lord Cunningham of Felling Lord Cunningham of Felling Labour

I am sorry; will the noble Lord please focus on pancreatic cancer and say whether he is satisfied with the performance of the National Health Service and others in respect of research into and finding solutions to what in many respects is apparently becoming a notifiable disease and a sentence of death?

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I thank the noble Lord for my proposed promotion. My noble friend Lord Moylan has also raised pancreatic cancer a number of times. To be absolutely honest, this is one of those cases where we are on a journey. I think we have got on top of certain areas, such as prostate cancer, about which we have increased awareness to ensure we get detection early on, but we do not detect pancreatic cancer early enough and, unfortunately, it is then often too late. We are working on something to try to correct that. The noble Lord is quite right to bring it up, and I am happy to write to him to tell him exactly what we are doing.

Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, I hope the Minister will revisit his department’s response to the Times today, which comes across as quite dismissive of genuine difficulties that many people across the country have with access to medicines. I encourage the Government to offer a service where people can report their individual experiences of shortages so that they can be aggregated into real-time public reports about what is happening across the country. If he wants an example of what this could look like, he could look at Downdetector, which does something similar for access to internet services.

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I quizzed the team on exactly that Times newspaper report today, because like the noble Lord, they were saying that they did not recognise the numbers that the British Generic Manufacturers Association had produced. I wanted to understand why, and asked the team to sit down with them, and understand the differences, because one side or the other must be right. They are absolutely doing that, and will report back; I will be happy to update the House on the results of that.

Photo of Baroness Manzoor Baroness Manzoor Conservative

My Lords, the drug Ozempic has been described as a super-drug for the use of diabetic patients, in order to help them reduce weight. My noble friend the Minister will be aware that diabetes costs the NHS 10% of the budget—approximately £25,000 to £30,000 a minute—with 80% of that money spent on treating diabetic complications. Therefore, can my noble friend the Minister say why Ozempic can be prescribed privately but is not available easily to NHS patients as a result of demand and constraints in manufacturing? How can the Government address this?

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My noble friend is correct that this so-called off-label use of these diabetes drugs for weight-loss-type treatments is causing some of the shortages she mentions. That is exactly what we have been tackling, and we have been making sure that the only way you can get the Wegovy weight-loss drug is actually on a very tightly controlled weight management programme normally run through hospitals, and not through normal GPs, exactly to get on top of that issue.

Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

My Lords, there are reports in the media today of pharmacists having to deal with frustrated and worried customers who are faced with shortages of medicines including HRT and the drugs for ADHD, diabetes and cancer. Can the Minister indicate what action is being taken to support and gather feedback from pharmacists who are dealing with such an unsatisfactory situation? What steps are being taken to ensure that, in the future, the supply system is able to cope as soon as demand for medicines increases?

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

We find that each one is a different case in point. HRT is an example: we actually saw a 50% increase in demand for it over the last year, so suddenly that is quite a dislocation for the market, and you need to gear up very quickly in terms of the supply chain issues. Strep A was the example last year that we will all be familiar with; normally, it does not come until later in the year, but suddenly there was a very early outbreak in October, which caused the demand there. You find that every single drug tends to be a different case in point. There is a range of tools that they work with; it is working with the NHS, MHRA suppliers and pharmacists, and it is case by case. As I say, sometimes it is the MHRA expediting medicines to get new supply in; sometimes it is working on alternative suppliers; sometimes it is buying internationally—that is what we did in the case of strep A—and sometimes you do have to go as far as the serious shortage protocols, finding substitutes or, in extreme cases, changing doses. There is a range of programmes on it, which by and large are managing to tackle it.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

My Lords, can I ask the Minister specifically about the continued lack of supply of ADHD medication? The department said that the supply shortages would continue until April, when previously it had indicated that this supply issue would have been resolved by now. Do the Government understand the serious impacts that these shortages have, and the impact that the inability some people are facing to get any medication at all is having on their daily lives?

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

There are 78 medicines for ADHD, 10 of which are particularly affected. We have put export restrictions in place on that, and we are working it through so that we can hopefully get it resolved by April. It is something we are working very closely on, because we know the importance.

Photo of Lord Bellingham Lord Bellingham Conservative

My Lords, I understand the Minister’s department has a cap on total allowed sales of branded medicines to the NHS. I think it will be a 4% cap over the next five years. Is this making the problem worse? Is it exacerbating the problem? Is it something he could look at with his ministerial colleagues?

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I think the cap my noble friend is referring to is actually in terms of the price negotiations on the VPAG and how the rebates kick in. It is not my understanding that is something that is at issue here. We are talking about where there are specific ranges. A study was produced by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America looking at supply issues across lots of countries over the 10 years from 2012 to 2021. The UK was consistently in the top three. Yes, there are some issues that we are working through, but by and large we are consistently in the top three of supply.