Medicines supply in the UK was in the spotlight again last week after a package of “tough new actions” was put together at an emergency summit called by the government to tackle the problem.

Thus far attempts reign in the number of medicines bleeding out of the UK and into countries abroad have failed, but parallel exporters continue to cash in on the weak pound and low drug prices and patients continue to suffer, so it quickly became evident that much stronger action is needed to put a lid on such activities.

According to the Pharmaceutical Service Negotiating Committee the supply of more than 40 drugs covering a wide range of therapeutic areas is currently running dry, driven by an exodus of more than £30 million-worth of medicines from UK each month. "For months, I have been seriously concerned about the potential impact of this on patients," said health minister Mike O'Brien, and he stressed that it is "unacceptable that some people have already had to wait longer than they should have to get their medication. Patients must come before profits".

Last week, the government hosted an emergency summit involving supply chain stakeholders such as the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the British Association of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers and the National Pharmacy Association, with the aim of creating a range of collaborative solutions to address medicines shortages in the country.

Perhaps the action with most teeth, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has agreed to carry out a targeted programme of inspections, and if manufacturers or wholesalers are found to be in breach of legal duties to maintain an adequate supply of medicines they risk prosecution and losing their licences. Similarly, pharmacists and doctors will be held to account by their professional bodies for failing in their ethical obligation to put patients first.

The government has also promised to raise the standards required for wholesaler dealers’ licences, and other measures include the development and maintenance of a list of drugs that are endangered, “so that no-one has the excuse that they were not aware of supply difficulties”, as the Department of Health explained, as well as the prioritisation of products on that list for further investigation to find possible resolutions to the worst supply issues.

In addition, the group intends develop best practice guidance for dispensing doctors, pharmacy, wholesalers and manufacturers to help them better manage supply problems, and explore how manufacturers and wholesalers could be assigned a “more explicit duty” to ensure that stocks do not run dry, as well as the feasibility of establishing buffer stocks to be held by wholesalers, to help give the supply chain greater flexibility, the DH said.

Measures welcomed
Richard Barker, director-general of the ABPI, has welcomed the collaborative approach to maintaining medicines supply in the country. “We also strongly support the proposal to raise the standards to be applied to the licensing of wholesalers, to reinforce their mission to deliver medicines to meet the needs of UK patients, who should be at the centre of all of our activities,” he said.

“The robust package of measures that has now been agreed, including supporting all parts of the supply-chain with best practice guidance, will be instrumental in addressing this continuing problem,” added Sue Sharpe, chief executive of the PSNC.