EU plan for medicine stockpile could worsen UK’s record shortages

The EU is to stockpile key medicines that will worsen the record drug shortages in the UK, with experts warning that the country could be left “behind in the queue”.

The EU is seeking to safeguard its supplies by switching to a system in which its 27 members work together to secure reliable supplies of 200 commonly used medications, such as antibiotics, painkillers and vaccines.

But the bloc’s move to insulate itself from growing drug shortages threatens to exacerbate the increasing scarcity of medicines facing the NHS, posing serious problems for doctors.

“Europe is securing access to key drugs and vaccines as a single region, with huge influence and buying power. As a result of Brexit the UK is now isolated from this system, so our drug supplies could be at risk in the future,” said Dr Andrew Hill, an expert on the pharmaceutical trade.

Britain is experiencing a record level of drug shortages, with more than 100 – including treatments for cancer, type 2 diabetes and motor neurone disease – scarce or impossible to obtain.

Mark Dayan, the Brexit programme lead at the Nuffield Trust health thinktank, said the EU’s decision to act as a buying cartel could seriously disadvantage Britain.

“There is a real risk that measures in such a large neighbour, which is now a separate market due to Brexit, will leave the UK behind in the queue when shortages strike,” Dayan said.

“The EU has been scoping out buying more medicine jointly, starting with action on antibiotics next winter. It also has an initiative for member states to transfer stocks of medicine to cover shortages in others. These measures could shut UK purchasers out in certain scenarios.

“This would risk worsening shortages from a starting point where they are already exceptionally severe for the UK and other countries, with a mounting impact in terms of costs and wasted time for the NHS, and in terms of patients struggling to get what their doctors have said they need.”

The European Medicines Agency, which Britain belonged to and hosted in London before Brexit, has said that the drugs on its “list of critical medicines … will be prioritised for EU-wide actions to strengthen their supply chains and minimise the risk of supply disruptions”. It defines a drug as “critical” based on the seriousness of the disease and whether there are alternative medicines 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 to 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. Those are all disincentives for drug manufacturers to supply to the UK, a country of 66 million people, when they have a much bigger market of [450 million] nearby that is eager to secure their products.”

The UK should protect its access to drugs by working more closely with the EU on medication supply, 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 scarcities 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 reliance on India and China.

Mark Samuels, the chief executive of the British Generic Manufacturers Association, which represents generic drugmakers, said the government’s recent decision to increase the amount it claws back from manufacturers of generic drugs, if their sales exceed an agreed level, risked turning some products into loss-makers that would become uneconomic to bring into the UK.

Without a government strategy to bolster British production of generic medicines – which comprise 80% of the drugs the NHS uses – “we will see the supply problems become even worse”, given the EU’s concerted action to ensure its own supplies, Samuels said.

But the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, which represents drug companies in the UK, denied the EU’s moves would necessarily worsen shortages in Britain.

David Watson, its director of patient access, said: “We recognise that, for a wide range of reasons, shortages do happen, and that we need to continue to work across borders to prevent and manage them for patients. We have no reason to think that the EU’s latest policies will adversely impact this ongoing challenge.

“The UK has its own well-rehearsed procedures in place to safeguard essential medicine stocks, working with companies.”

The Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, Daisy Cooper, said: “We need immediate action to address these drug shortages that are causing havoc for people who rely on these medications. This Conservative government does not seem to be taking this seriously at all, despite the devastating impact this is having on people’s lives.

“The government has questions to answer about whether their dogmatic approach to relations with our European allies is about to cause further misery for ordinary people.”

The Department of Health and Social Care was approached for comment.