The UK is currently facing record levels of drug shortages for conditions ranging from ADHD to epilepsy, low potassium and menopause symptom management. Recently, it was found that over 111 products have been impacted in the UK, a two-fold increase when compared to 2022. The EU has announced plans to work as a bloc, a group uniting for political/economic purpose, to secure reliable levels of 200 key medicines, which some say could worsen the UK’s shortages. This would involve the 27 members collaborating to ensure the supplies of 200 of the most common antibiotics, painkillers and vaccines remain.
Doctors have said they feel blamed for shortages while politicians haven’t faced any consequences
The severity of the shortages is likely to be felt across the population, with increasing difficulty to obtain drug supplies for diabetes, cancer and motor neurone disease. This comes at a time in which Britain is experiencing a huge increase in pressure on the NHS. Doctors have said they feel blamed for shortages while politicians haven’t faced any consequences. Doctors have also reported anger expressed at them when patients are not able to source what they have been told they need.
There are several causes of this problem. Manufacturing problems are a major reason for the shortage. In 2022 and 2023, it was reported that 60% of the global medicine shortages were due to manufacturing problems. Demand exceeding supply is another key reason pharmaceutical companies are experiencing shortages. As reported by The Conversation, hormone replacement therapy drugs have been deeply affected by exceeding demand. Furthermore, social media ‘trends’ have put the lives of people medically requiring specific drugs in danger, further complicating the difficult situation with supply and demand. For example, Ozempic, a drug used for diabetes, was popularised for its weight-loss side-effects, demand for the drug increasing drastically and some countries even stopping the production of it. That being said, some of the reasons for the shortages are natural, such as a severe increase in Strep-A last year (the highest level on record since 1997) leading to heightened antibiotic prescriptions, a level that has yet to recover.
There are fears growing that the UK might be bottom of the pile for receiving medication
Brexit is, undoubtedly, another huge cause for the current situation with medicine, and threatens future security. The changes in trade deals involved in Brexit have led to ‘additional costs, supplier changes and delays’. The Brexit programme lead at the Nuffield Trust health think tank, Mark Dayan, has argued that the EUs decision to act as a ‘buying cartel’ could be very dangerous for Britain. This is due to no longer being part of the EU, with fears growing that the UK might be bottom of the pile for receiving medication, as states sharing stocks to limit shortages may not include the UK, or simply brand them as a low priority. Furthermore, several economic characteristics make the UK much less attractive than the EU regarding trade of medicine. These include much higher taxes involved in the selling process and a smaller population size compared to other European countries, meaning pharmaceutical companies would be missing out on money elsewhere.
As of 2024, the European Commission has put initiatives in place to reduce these shortages. For example, enforcing rules that suppliers need to report shortages earlier before they become so serious, and an emphasis on more sharing of stock. With these approaches, hope remains that shortages will alleviate.