Almost half of UK adults struggling to get prescription drugs amid shortages

Updated
<span>There are currently 100 drugs listed as in short supply, including antibiotics, HRT and cancer medications.</span><span>Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian</span>
There are currently 100 drugs listed as in short supply, including antibiotics, HRT and cancer medications.Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

Almost half of adults in the UK have struggled to get medicine they have been prescribed – and more people blame Brexit than anything else for the situation, research shows.

Forty-nine per cent of people said they had had trouble getting a prescription dispensed over the past two years, the period during which supply problems have increased sharply.

Drug shortages are so serious that one in 12 Britons were unable to find the medication they needed, despite asking a number of pharmacies.

The survey of 2,028 people representative of the population, undertaken by Opinium for the British Generic Manufacturers Association (BGMA), found that:

  • One in 12 people (8%) have gone without a medication altogether because it was impossible to obtain.

  • Thirty-one per cent found the drug they needed was out of stock at their pharmacy.

  • Twenty-three per cent of pharmacies did not have enough of the medication available.

When asked why shortages were so common, more cited issues involving the UK leaving the EU (36%) than inflation (33%) or global conflict and instability (26%).

“Shortages are deeply worrying for patients’ physical health, alongside the stress of not knowing if an essential medicine will be available,” said Mark Samuels, the chief executive of the BGMA, which represents firms that produce the generic – or off-patent – drugs, which account for 80% of all the drugs the NHS uses across the UK.

“Several factors are contributing to the problem and the Brexit agreement is definitely one of them,” said Samuels.

“For example, medicines made here can’t be exported to Europe but those made on the continent can be brought here. This gives zero incentive to increase manufacturing capacity in the UK, a capability that could help with shortages.”

The number of drugs in short supply has soared since the start of 2022. In January 2022, there were 52 such products, but this month that number stands at 100. They include HRT, antibiotics and antidepressants as well as medications for ADHD, epilepsy, cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis.

In October 2023, there was an all-time record number of drugs in shortage – 111 – the BGMA added, citing figures compiled by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). With drug supply problems a global phenomenon, some of the UK’s shortages are not due to end until next year.

The NHS Business Services Authorityissued four “serious shortage protocol” notices last month alone. Two relate to clarithromycin, an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections such as pneumonia, cellulitis and ear infections.

Of the 87 generic drugs that are hard or impossible to find, 34 have been in short supply for more than six months and 23 for longer than a year.

Samuels said recent governments had contributed to the problem by displaying “complacency around the off-patent medicines industry despite it supplying four out of five NHS prescription drugs”.

“The next administration needs a targeted plan to encourage companies to continue to see the UK as a priority place to supply,” he added, “otherwise the shortage situation will not improve.”

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