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15 April 2019

Health minister responds to call for information about drug shortages

Health minister Stephen Hammond MP has sent the following statement to Epilepsy Society in response to our call for more information about medicines shortages. Mr Hammond is replying on behalf of Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Stephen Hammond writes:

"In the past weeks, there has been speculation in the media about potential shortages of treatments for epilepsy and suggestions that these were linked to our exit from the EU. I know from numerous correspondence and posts on social media that this has caused worry for many with epilepsy and their families.

"I want to put on the record that recent supply issues related to epilepsy medicines are in no way linked to our exit from the EU. Medicine supply problems can occur for a wide variety of reasons, and the Department of Health and Social Care has well-established routine procedures to deal with shortages, from whatever cause. We work closely with manufacturers, the NHS and patient groups so you can continue to access the right medicines. In fact, we have been working closely with the supplier of the medicines referenced in this piece, together with the Epilepsy Society and wider NHS to manage any issues.

"My priority is to ensure you receive helpful, accurate information about this issue and the extensive work that has been ongoing to manage it. I also want to assure you that we continue to work to ensure that there will be no impact on medical supplies caused by our exit from the EU.

Trading arrangements

"To be clear, if we leave under the conditions of the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement there will be no changes to our current trading arrangements with the EU during the implementation period, during which we will negotiate our future trading partnership with the EU. Therefore, while there may still be routine medicines shortages that we will manage through our strong standard procedures, the supply of medical products, including epilepsy drugs, will continue on the same basis as it does now during that period.

"I made a written ministerial statement in February about my Department’s plans for the continuity of medicines and medical products in the event we exit the EU without a deal. As part of our contingency plans, we have looked at over 300 different epilepsy medicines provided by nearly 50 different companies. Many companies are holding stocks far beyond the six weeks’ additional buffer we requested. 

No-deal exit scenario

"I am acutely aware that issues with supply could have a severe impact on someone’s health. This is why building up buffer stocks and stockpiling is only one part of the multi-layered approach we have put in place to minimise the risk of any disruption to the supply of medicines and medical products in a no-deal exit scenario. Other critical measures include:

  • securing, via the Department for Transport, additional freight capacity (away from the short straits crossings to Dover and Folkestone) for goods to continue to come into the UK in the event of a no-deal EU exit;
  • buying extra warehouse space for additional stock;
  • supporting companies in booking space on aircraft for products with short shelf-lives or specific storage conditions;
  • making changes to, or clarifications of, certain regulatory requirements so that companies can continue to sell their products in the UK even if we don’t have a deal;
  • strengthening the processes and resources used to deal with shortages if they do occur.

"This multi-layered approach is essential: A combination of all these measures will be required to help ensure the continuation of medical supplies. I am confident that if everyone does what they need to do, the supply of medicines should be uninterrupted in the event we leave the EU without a deal.

Serious Shortage Protocol

"I am also aware of speculation in the media about the impact of the introduction of a Serious Shortage Protocol on patients with epilepsy. A protocol is an additional tool to manage supply issues when all other measures have been exhausted or are deemed ineffective and would only be issued if clinicians think it is appropriate. This is a business as usual policy, and is not linked to our exit from the EU. Let me be clear – a protocol will never be used to substitute a treatment for epilepsy. In the event of a supply issue, a patient with epilepsy would always be referred back to their prescriber for any decision about their treatment before an alternative is given.

"We have committed to treating all information relating to no deal plans confidentially, securely and for use only as part of the Department’s programme, to ensure that participating companies are open and honest with us and therefore we are unable to publicly discuss plans around specific medicines or companies. However, many companies have decided to share their contingency plans with the Epilepsy Society directly and you can access this information online.

No deal Brexit contingency plans

"We aim to be as transparent as we can about our preparations for EU exit, whatever the outcome, and we will continue to keep the public and our stakeholders regularly up to date.

"Epilepsy medications are vital to many people in this country and I want to reassure anyone reading this: Whatever the Brexit outcome, it is our priority to make sure the supply of medicines can continue uninterrupted. I will continue to work tirelessly to ensure this is the case."

Email from Clare Pelham

Mr Hammond's response was in reply to the email below from Clare Pelham, Chief Executive at Epilepsy Society to Health Secretary Matt Hancock:

Dear Matt Hancock,

I am writing following the Newsnight programme last night to ask for your help.

As you will understand, we are receiving a large number of calls to our Helpline and other enquiries from people with epilepsy reporting current shortages in the supply of their epilepsy medication and/or concerned about possible future shortages, especially in the context of Brexit.

It is important that people with epilepsy are confident that they have an accurate understanding of the position to prevent unnecessary anxiety. We understand that some of the reporting last night on Newsnight was based on a leaked document, and may perhaps not be the latest, or most authoritative, statement of the current position.

We would be grateful therefore if you could give us a statement today that we can share with callers to our Helpline and on Social Media that sets out clearly the current position, including naming epilepsy drugs, if any, that are likely to be unavailable in the coming month.

As you will know, the Epilepsy Society is engaging constructively with the Medicines Supply Team on how best to address the underlying issues and communicate effectively with people with epilepsy. And we are happy to do anything further that would be helpful.

Best wishes

Clare

Clare Pelham
Chief Executive
Epilepsy Society

Clare Pelham gives her response to Health Minister Stephen Hammond

Clare Pelham today issued the following response to Stephen Hammond's reply: "This is incredibly important information and I hope that it will be reassuring for people with epilepsy that there is much work being done behind the scenes to ensure that everyone gets their medication when they need it.

"We know that the current shortages are not caused by Brexit but are part of an underlying trend of epilepsy medicine supply shortages.

"We have suggested to Matt Hancock that he commissions a Review of the reasons for the faulty drug supply chain.

"This is a long standing problem of at least 10 years; and yet shortages ought to be avoidable.

"We are delighted to have the support of the National Pharmacy Association for this request; and we hope to be able to work with the Government to realise our shared ambition of a lasting solution to this problem."

More information

Professor Ley Sander, Medical Director at Epilepsy Society advises on ways to manage the current shortages of epilepsy medications