The EU is set to stockpile key medicines that will worsen record drug shortages in the UK, with experts warning the country could be left “back in the queue”.
The EU is seeking to secure its supplies by switching to a system in which its 27 members work together to ensure reliable supplies of 200 commonly used medicines, such as antibiotics, painkillers and vaccines.
But the bloc’s move to insulate itself from growing drug shortages threatens to exacerbate the growing shortage of medicines facing the NHS, which is causing serious problems for doctors.
“Europe secures access to key medicines and vaccines as a single region, with great influence and purchasing power. As a result of Brexit, the UK is now isolated from this system, so our drug supply could be at risk in the future,” said Dr Andrew Hill, an expert in the pharmaceutical trade, said.
Britain is experiencing a record level of drug shortageswith more than 100 – including treatments for cancer, type 2 diabetes and motor neuron disease – rare or impossible to obtain.
Mark Dayan, the Brexit program leader at the Nuffield Trust health think tank, said the EU’s decision to act as a buying cartel could seriously harm Britain.
“There is a real risk that measures in such a large neighboring country, which is now a separate market due to Brexit, will leave the UK in line when deficits hit,” Dayan said.
“The EU is buying more medicines collectively, starting with action against antibiotics next winter.
It also has an initiative for member states to transfer stocks of medicines to cover shortages in others. These measures may exclude UK buyers in certain scenarios.
“This would risk exacerbating shortages from a starting point where they are already exceptionally severe for the UK and other countries, with an increasing impact in terms of costs and wasted time for the NHS, and in terms of patients struggle to get what their doctors say they need.”
The European Medicines Agency, to which Britain belonged before Brexit and was based in London, said the drugs on its “list of critical medicines… will be prioritized for EU-wide actions to strengthen their supply chains and reduce the risk of supply disruptions”. It defines a drug as “critical” based on the severity of the illness and whether there are alternative medicines that doctors can offer in the event of a shortage. The EU plans to expand the list to cover a wider range of drugs.
Several factors make Britain less attractive than the EU for the pharmaceutical trade, Hill said.
“The UK has additional regulations, higher taxes and is a much smaller country to work with than the European region. These are all disincentives for drug manufacturers to supply the UK, a country of 66 million people, when they have a much larger market of [450 million] close who are eager to secure their products.”
The UK should protect its access to drugs by working more closely with the EU on the supply of medicines, in the way it already does on defence, policing and higher education, Hill said.
The EU is also considering offering drug companies incentives to build new manufacturing plants as part of its response to global shortages caused by events such as the Russia-Ukraine war.
Several European countries, including France, plan to expand drug production within their borders to reduce their dependence on India and China.
Mark Samuels, the chief executive of the British Generic Manufacturers Association, which represents generic drug makers, said the government’s recent decision to increase the amount it gets back from generic drug makers if their sales exceed an agreed level is running the danger of turning some products into loss. -manufacturers that would become uneconomic to bring to the UK.
Without a government strategy to boost UK production of generic medicines – which make up 80% of the medicines the NHS uses – “we will see the supply problems get even worse”, given the EU’s concerted action to secure its own supplies , Samuels said.
But the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, which represents drug companies in the UK, denied that the EU’s moves would necessarily worsen shortages in Britain.
David Watson, its director of patient access, said: “We recognize that shortages do occur for a wide variety of reasons, and that we must continue to work across borders to prevent and manage them for patients. We have no reason to think that the EU’s latest policy will adversely affect this ongoing challenge.
“The UK has its own well-rehearsed procedures in place to protect essential medicine supplies, working with companies.”
Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper said: “We need immediate action to address these drug shortages which are wreaking havoc on people who rely on these medications. This Conservative government doesn’t seem to take it seriously at all, despite the devastating impact it has on people’s lives.
“The government has questions to answer about whether its dogmatic approach to relations with our European allies is about to cause further misery for ordinary people.”
The Department of Health and Social Care have been approached for comment.