The reality is that if you’re in possession of a pulse you’re probably sick to the back teeth of Brexit. It feels like we’ve been negotiating (and disagreeing) about leaving the EU for at least the last century, if not longer. Regardless of your views on Teresa May, a second referendum and whether Brexit should happen at all, the reality is that right now we’re hurtling towards the 29th March 2019 deadline when we will officially leave the EU and the possibility of that happening without a deal in place is looming ever larger.
A No Deal Brexit would likely affect every aspect of our daily lives – but what impact could it have on pain patients in particular?
Matt Hancock MP, the government’s Health and Social Care Secretary, wrote to all pharmaceutical companies in December with updated advice for No Deal Brexit planning. The letter doesn’t make for comfortable reading.
Back in August 2018, pharmaceutical companies were asked to stockpile at least six weeks’ worth of additional medicines; the letter makes it clear that in the event of a No Deal Brexit, this may be woefully insufficient.
Six months of chaos
It’s now widely believed that instead of a six-week shortage, crashing out of the EU without an agreement could lead to a medication shortage that in fact lasts six months or longer. If No Deal Brexit does take place, the reality is that moving goods through the wildly busy Dover-Calais Channel crossing will become a fraught process. At the moment it’s a critical and heavily-trafficked route for goods to enter and exit the UK, but the abolition of the existing customs arrangement we subscribe to through membership of the EU is expected by all parties to create a state of utter chaos that could easily last six months or more. This means products of all sorts that we’re accustomed to seeing in the supermarket, on the high street and easily available in our pharmacies may well be suddenly in short supply.
What this means in real terms for anyone dependent on regular medication is that you just might not be able to get it.
What is the government doing to alleviate possible medication shortages?
The government is well aware that this could be a massive problem and they are trying to put measures in place to alleviate a potential disaster.
In addition to asking pharmaceutical companies to supplement their six-week drug stockpile “with additional actions”, they’re looking to find alternative routes for essential medications to enter the country. The government has chartered an aircraft to fly in emergency medicine if required, and they’ve recently become the largest buyer of fridges in the world as they attempt to create a surplus of drugs that need to be kept refrigerated.
But will that be enough? Members of the medical profession are understandably extremely concerned that import chaos may leave us without essential treatments for every kind of ailment.
Pharmacists may be given emergency powers
Despite efforts to ensure we don’t run out of medicine, pharmacists and doctors remain extremely concerned that we’ll still face a crisis. The Department of Health and Social Care has proposed a “serious shortages protocol”, with the support of the National Pharmacy Association, that would give chemists emergency powers in the event of medicines become unavailable.
If approved by Parliament, this new legislation would give pharmacists additional rights: firstly, they’d be able to substitute a similar medicine for one prescribed by a doctor, without a doctor’s approval. They’d also be able to dispense a smaller number of tablets (or equivalent) than stated on a prescription, and even a lower dosage should they deem it appropriate without checking with a doctor first.
It’s a worrying prospect for anyone who’s on a regular dose of prescription medication to cope with their chronic pain.
What should chronic pain patients do?
At the moment it’s extremely hard to know. The political landscape seems to shift on almost an hour-by-hour basis, and the truth is that whilst there seems to be a consensus amongst most MPs that we should avoid a No Deal Brexit at all costs, there’s little agreement about how we actually do that.
Unfortunately, it seems that there’s very little we can do right now as nothing is certain. Reading statements from the NPA, it is likely that these new powers for pharmacists (if passed) will be introduced before March regardless of whether there’s a Brexit plan in place or not.
I try to end my articles with concrete advice of where to turn, who to ask or what to do if a certain issue is affecting you. This is probably the first time ever (and I hope the last) that I’m forced to end with a simple “I don’t know”. The reality is that we could be facing shortages of the medicines we rely on to live our daily lives and I’m beyond sorry to say that I just don’t know what any of us can do about it. I’ll update this advice as soon as anything changes, but in the meantime the only thing I can recommend is to hope as hard as you can that the politicians get something sorted soon. Very soon.