We need answers on medicine and Brexit

For a lot of people, Brexit remains a far away exercise that isn’t going to affect them, or if it will, it’s not clear yet. But in case I needed a reminder that I’m working on real life issues, I can count on my inbox to let me know, as people get in touch desperately looking for reassurance that things will somehow be alright. One such message was from Sam. Sam is 61, loves his dog and, before he got sick and needed dialysis, was a regular member of his local football team. Now Sam is worrying about whether he’ll be able to get his kidney medication after Brexit, because the UK Government has yet to confirm a reliable, strong plan for managing the supply of prescription drugs and the press is full of stockpiling stories.

National header

First published in The National, 13 September 2018

I’m surprised not to have read more about this, to be honest. We know that Brexit is going to hit our farming industry hard, and our scientific research, and our airplanes, but we haven’t heard much about our medicines.

Most of us have a vested interest in this, surely? We have regular prescriptions for our asthma or diabetes, I’ll declare an interest that I need my weekly arthritis medication too. If we’re lucky enough not to need regular treatment, we know we can go to the GP and come out with a piece of paper for pills or creams to treat the rash, the cough, the pesky backache. We have a National Health Service that – despite the privateers’ best efforts – continues to look after our sick and vulnerable without going through their pockets first, and in Scotland we don’t have to pay prescription charges. Like so many crucial parts of life, we don’t really think about it until it goes wrong.

Right now, free movement of goods across Europe includes medicines. The UK exports 45 million packs of medicines to EU and EEA countries, and imports around 37m. Yes, we could stockpile tablets and pills, keep great stacks of paracetamol in some warehouse, but not all medicines have a long shelf life or can be put into packets. Insulin, for example, has to be stored in a refrigerator until it’s used.

The process of getting medicine is a delicate one, with ingredients travelling from manufacturer to factory to distributor. We already had an Epipen shortage earlier this year due to supply problems. For someone whose throat is closing in anaphylactic shock, an Epipen is a literal lifesaver, so don’t tell me medicine shortages are something we’ll just have to muddle through. We need answers – we need them now.

Staff too. One in 10 doctors have seen EU colleagues leave due to Brexit, according to the British Medical Association. The British Medical Journal reports that Brexit is going to make it even more difficult to bring in seven-day hospital services.

If we leave with no deal – personally I think the notion of ‘no deal’ is a way of making the subsequent ‘rubbish deal’ seem better but let’s go along with it for now – then the UK won’t be part of the EU medicines and medical devices regulatory networks.

There are human costs to this. I know you’re probably sick of seeing politicians taking pot shots at each other in the press for easy points, and that’s genuinely not what this is. Brexit has bypassed ideological viewpoints, thought experiments, and long broadsheet columns. Brexit will have a human cost because there was no contingency plan for a Leave victory, and even now the lawmakers are refusing to be sensible lest they be smeared for trying to sabotage the glorious golden Brexit that exists in the minds of backbenchers and isolationist purists. Sam cannot afford to skip his dialysis medication. That girl in the local high school cannot miss her insulin. The woman in the café by your work cannot drop the anti-depressants she put off admitting she needed.

You’re calling this Project Fear 2? Aye, well, we should be scared. This isn’t Political Team A versus Political Team B, but so many folk are switching off and not seeing Brexit as something that will affect them, wanting it over and done with, regardless of how they voted. Unless the UK Government, their media cronies, and the assorted extremists start putting public health above public approval, we’re all in trouble.