• Sell-off of drugs stockpiled for NHS could be triggered if sterling falls in coming weeks
  • Devaluation could be sparked by markets’ concerns UK will crash out of EU with no deal
  • ABPI calls for temporary restrictions on certain drug export deals to protect stockpiles

Fresh concerns have been raised that drugs stockpiled for a no-deal Brexit could be sold off before the 31 October deadline unless ministers intervene.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry this week warned a sell-off of stockpiled medicines could be triggered if the pound devalues against the Euro on currency markets, which finance experts say is likely if traders fear the UK will crash out without a deal.

The industry body has refreshed its call for ministers to introduce temporary restrictions on certain drug export deals, so-called “parallel exports”, to protect the stockpiles (See box: Parallel exporting explained).

Some of the stockpiles could be sold by wholesalers to take advantage of favourable currency fluctuations. They would not need the consent of the manufacturers, NHS or government to do so.

An ABPI spokeswoman told HSJ: “If the value of the pound against the Euro should fall in the run-up to Brexit it becomes more profitable for traders to sell medicines abroad that were originally intended for the UK.”

She added: “It’s important the government thinks through options they have, in line with guidance from the [European] Commission, so that stockpiles of medicines we have built up will be secured and remain available for British patients.”

The ABPI would not comment on which types of drugs or sectors were particularly at risk of being sold off.

However, the loss of any medicines would represent a major blow to contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit. The industry lobby group first called for a short-term ban on parallel exporting drug deals in March in the run-up to the initial Brexit deadline. The prospect of a no-deal exit has increased since then, so concerns are rising. 

The Department of Health and Social Care said in March it was “aware of concerns raised about this issue and continue to work closely with the NHS, industry and the supply chain to ensure patients continue to access medicines in the same way they do now – whatever the EU exit outcome”.

The DHSC is also in the process of finding a provider for a £25m contract to set up an “express freight service” to deliver medicines and medical products into the country in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The DHSC said the service was “intended to deliver small parcels of medicines or medical products on a 24-hour basis, with additional provision to move larger pallet quantities on a two-to-four-day basis”.

The large drug companies have also been drawing up their own contingency transport plans, with senior NHS and industry sources telling HSJ it is hoped the government plans will only be a last resort.

The DHSC declined to answer whether it was preparing plans for a temporary ban on parellel exporting.

It said in a statement: “We continue to work closely with the NHS, industry and distributers to help ensure the supply of medicine and medical products remains uninterrupted once we leave the EU on 31 October, whatever the circumstances. We want to reassure patients in the UK that we are taking all appropriate steps to prepare for Brexit.”

Parallel exporting explained

Parallel exporting is the cross-border sale of medicines within the EU by traders and wholesalers outside of the manufacturer’s distribution system and without the manufacturer’s consent.

Parallel export of medicines is a legal practice. It is more likely when the pound is weaker against the Euro, which means it is more profitable to sell those medicines within European markets.

The ABPI said UK pharmaceutical companies were concerned the practice could mean the additional stockpiles could run down quickly.

There is little manufacturers can do to mitigate against the practice unless the government acts.