Eighty percent of 60 National Health Service trusts in England and Wales are experiencing delays in obtaining medicines for their patients, freedom of information requests by Labour MP Huw Irranca-Davies have revealed.

Around 70 to 80 drugs are still on the danger list, including lifesaving medicines for serious illness such as cancer, heart conditions and Alzheimer's disease, as parallel traders continue to cash in despite the fact that patients are suffering as a result.

Speaking to BBC Wales, Irranca-Davies called on the UK government to take a harder stance on the issue as, he stressed, the voluntary route taken to date just isn't working. "Patients are having to wait weeks for drugs and it's not good enough".

If anything, he argues drug shortages are actually getting worse, despite a quota system operated by drug manufacturers to provide extra flexibility and limit pharmacists from submitting excessive orders, and numerous attempts by the government and other parties to rectify the situation over the last three or four years.

Some drugmakers say they are already producing more than 150% of what's needed, while chemists and doctors are spending an average of five hours a week ringing around trying to source drugs, and some are spending up to 20 hours a week on the phone, he claims.

Irranca-Davies is calling on the government to introduce tighter regulation in the shape of a Patient Service Obligation, which, he says, are already used by around three-quarters of countries in Europe to protect medicine supply to patients.

Enforcing obligations?

Health Minister Simon Burns said last month that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is currently reviewing the patient service obligations introduced by other European member states, but added that the government "is cautious about increasing the regulatory burden on the supply chain".

Last week the British Association of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers said the Department of Health must "stop sticking its head in the sand" over the issue of medicines shortages, and in May, the All-Party Pharmacy Group's inquiry called on the Medicines and Healthcare Products Agency to "improve its efforts to enforce obligations on those with licenses to conduct wholesale activities," and to "consider carefully whether it is in the best interests of patients to see further growth in the number of Wholesale Dealer Licenses."

Also this week, an article in The Daily Telegraph laid much of the blame for shortages at the door of pharmaceutical companies, claiming that the quota system is to blame for waning drug stocks.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical however was quick to refute this. "Quotas are a legitimate means of ensuring that UK patients receive the medicines they need", it said.

Sticking plaster

Conceding that the system is "a sticking plaster and not a cure", the ABPI stressed that it is essential to curb excessive orders, citing occasions where "manufacturers have received orders for medicines which represent more than the entire UK's requirement for one particular medicine in one go".

In a statement to PharmaTimes UK News, a spokesman for the Department of Health said "the government does maintain a buffer stock of certain essential medicines that can be released in emergencies," and stressed that it will "take any action necessary in the event of disruption to supply and distribution of medicines that causes serious risk to patients".