Supply of medicines could be affected by no-deal Brexit

Concerns about the supply of vaccines and drugs to Northern Ireland in the event of a No-Deal Brexit have led to extensive contingency plans
Seanín Graham

STOCKPILING of drugs is among measures to ensure patients access vital medicines in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Any threat to supplies is being addressed through a combination of stockpiling and managing the flow of drugs.

There are currently 10,000 drugs dispensed each day in Northern Ireland, with around 7,000 coming through the EU.

Fears about the supply of these medicines have been raised given that most come to Britain and Ireland via ferry through the Dover straits.

The British government's "reasonable worst case planning assessments" of a no-deal exit, known as Operation Yellowhammer, says the flow of cross-Channel goods could be reduced to 40 per cent immediately after a no-deal Brexit, with "significant disruption lasting up to six months."

"Unmitigated, this will have an impact on the supply of medicines and medical supplies," it says.

Assurances have been given in Northern Ireland about the continuation of vital vaccination programmes, including the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine for children and the annual flu jab, while contingencies are also in place for 'short-life' vaccines to treat cancer patients and diabetics.

Sources have told The Irish News that authorities "obviously do not want to rely solely on stockpiling" but have accepted it will happen "where necessary".

While emergency contingency planning is at advanced stage, there is less certainty around long-term measures to tackle a no-deal fallout, particularly in relation to staff.

In March, more than than 600 GPs from across the NHS called on the British government to take urgent action to offset the "profoundly negative" impact of Brexit - and singled out the protection of healthcare professionals working across the border.

The mutual recognition of professional qualifications, especially in relation to doctors, remains a significant concern with no guarantees about future working arrangements - a measure crucial in maintaining successful cross-border initiatives, such as paediatric cardiac surgery in Dublin and cancer treatment in Altnagelvin Hospital.

Northern Ireland is not large enough to sustain such all-island specialist hospital services, trade unions have warned.

"There is absolutely nothing positive about Brexit with regards to healthcare. It presents an unprecedented threat to patients, healthcare workers and the wider health and social care service," Dr Frances O'Hagan of the NI British Medical Association (BMA) said earlier this year.

"Regardless of what contingency plans they say are in place and the assurances that have been given by the Westminster government, Northern Ireland will still feel any departure from the EU far more acutely than the rest of the UK, especially if it's a no deal Brexit".

The official line from the Department of Health is it "appreciates this is an uncertain time" and that it is working to ensure public health and safety are protected.

Patients are being urged not to stockpile individually by changing the way they order their prescriptions or take their medicines.

Hospitals, community pharmacies, GPs, dentists, care homes and other health and social care services have also been advised against the move as the north will have access to "national stockpiling arrangements developed to maintain supplies of medicines to patients in all of the UK regions following EU exit".

A detailed "Q&A" released this week by the department reinforced these messages.

Department chiefs admitted however that they are unable to provide "an absolute guarantee" regarding disruption to the supply of medicines and medical products.

"Such an absolute guarantee could not be given in normal circumstances, regardless of EU exit. However, we can assure the public that we are working very hard with all stakeholders to plan and mitigate against any such disruptions."

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