Hospitals have been warned by the Department of Health that the practice of exporting drugs originally purchased for NHS use is “wholly unacceptable.”

Dr Keith Ridge, chief pharmaceutical officer at the Department, has written to all NHS hospital pharmacists, warning them that the parallel export of medicines is contrary to professional behaviour and presents a threat to the medicines supply chain and, therefore, to patient care.

He emphasises that his warning concerns just a small number of hospital pharmacists, but adds that to consider engaging in parallel trade during the flu pandemic is particularly irresponsible.

Dr Ridge sent out his warning as the Department announced plans to stockpile massive amounts of drugs considered to be most essential for patients in case the pandemic leads to problems with manufacturing and international supply chains. The contract period for the emergency reserves will be for five years, and the largest stockpiles will be for lactulose, methadone and simvastatin. A number of drugs for which shortages have recently been reported will also be stockpiled.

Exports from the UK of medicines purchased for NHS use have been growing recently due to the combination of the weak £ and low prices for drugs maintained under the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS). The trade, which is worth some £30 million a month, involves 11% of the UK’s 12,600 pharmacies and a “tiny number” of dispensing doctors, according to IMS Health research reported recently by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). The industry group also reported that there had been 77,020 emergency shipments in the first five months of this year by three major manufacturers, up from just 6,134 in the same period of 2008.

However, last week a survey of pharmacists by the journal Chemist + Druggist found that 78% also said they were finding it more difficult to access medicines because of the supply chain controls being implemented by a number of manufacturers.