The UK Government is holding urgent talks with industry over fears that the UK could be short of prescription medicines this winter.

Martin Sawer, executive director of the British Association of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers (BAPW), was quoted in The Times newspaper yesterday as warning that medicine stocks are now at their lowest level in decades.

One reason for the potential crisis is that pharmaceutical wholesalers are currently running down their stocks ahead of the new Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS) - which will commence in January and include a 5% cut in prices to the National Health Service (NHS) - in order not to have to sell medicines purchased previously and more expensively at the new, lower prices in the New Year. Normally, wholesalers maintain higher-than-usual stocks over the Christmas period, in order to accommodate patients’ needs for extra supplies before travelling away from home and the closure of pharmacies over the holiday period.

Domestic supplies in the UK are also being hit by an increase in parallel trade out of the country, following the steep slide in the pound’s value against the euro. The sudden lurch in the exchange rate has made the UK the cheapest place in Europe for medicines, and the country has suddenly become a parallel exporter rather than a parallel importer of medicines, according to Jeff Bulmer, pharmaceutical services director at AAH Pharmaceuticals, the UK’s leading distributor of pharmaceutical and health care products.

The UK’s entrepreneurial pharmacists have been quick to take advantage, ordering as much stock as possible to sell it on to their European colleagues at an extra profit, he said. However, the suddenness of this phenomenon has created such demand that manufacturers find it difficult to keep up – even when production runs or quotas are increased, the extra stock is simply sold overseas.

Mr Bulmer warns that not just a few patients are likely to suffer as a result, because it is the best-selling medicines which will yield the greatest profits for the traders, and he has urged the Department of Health and the industry to urgently sort out the problem.