Lancaster cancer patient: My no-deal Brexit drug shortage fears

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“Our government is supposed to keep us safe.”

Lancaster’s Dr Jenny Watts – who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 – said a no-deal Brexit could leave her without vital medicines.

Part of her treatment – a drug called Tamoxifen – is already on “emergency supply” from her pharmacy, and she fears that delays to – and increased costs of radioisotopes only available from continental Europe – will put hers and others’ lives at risk.

“It’s really frightening,” she said.

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests reveal that local hospital trusts have been ordered not to stockpile medicines by the government, while the British Nuclear Medicine Society has warned that a no-deal Brexit would cause delays in the delivery of medical radioisotopes to the North of England and other corners of the UK for up to six months.

Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said that the supply route for nuclear medicine isotopes is challenged even without any impact of Brexit.

A student looks at matter under a microscope

A student looks at matter under a microscope

Dr Watts, an associate lecturer at Lancaster University, is recovering from breast cancer after a biopsy, MRI scans, surgical procedures and chemotherapy which rely on nuclear radioisotopes.

She had a rare form of breast cancer, the treatment of which relies on a specific radioisotope from The Netherlands.

“All these procedures use different isotopes, depending on the type of cancer,” she said. “With mine the material used to work out the stage the cancer is at is not produced in the UK and it can’t be because of the type of reactor it requires.

“Luckily my cancer was caught very early and it was rare and slow growing.

“I had surgery and went back for the results, but they said it had reached my lymph nodes, so I needed to have chemotherapy. I was devastated, it’s life-changing.”

The British Nuclear Medicine Society (BNMS) wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson asking for clarity on how a no-deal Brexit would affect the supply of cancer treatments in the UK, but has so far received no response.

It is understood that in the event of a no deal Brexit on October 31, there are plans to air freight in nuclear medicine via East Midlands airport, and then transport it by road.

But the BNMS told Dr Watts that with all the checks needed it can take as long as road transport from Europe.

It said we “should be okay in most of the UK if there are no air traffic or weather delays.”

The independent organisation also said that one of the biggest issues is that these arrangements will all cost more as the NHS pays for two bills – the actual radioisotope, and delivery, which may go up by as much as 15-30 per cent.

“I’m sure no government would want this but obviously safety is absolutely paramount,” Dr Watts said. “It feels like I’m living under constant delays.

“I’ve had responses back from Brexit Secretaries, but they’ve been very vague. No-one voted for this. Our government is supposed to keep us safe.

“I just want concrete answers.”

On her most recent visit to her pharmacy to collect a prescription of Tamoxifen, Dr Watts was initially told it was unavailable, but following a lengthy wait, she was given a slightly different version of the drug, which she says made her more sick than usual. It also had “emergency supply” stamped on it.

She added: “I don’t blame voters and I can sympathise with people because they’ve been promised something that hasn’t been delivered.

“Friends and family that voted to leave feel very uncomfortable.

“It’s really sad that it’s having this effect on people’s relationships. People want what they voted for but they’re feeling disillusioned.

“It’s not just the lifesaving medication, it’s the drugs that deal with the side effects as well. There’s no such thing for me as a clean Brexit, for me and my situation that would be a very messy Brexit.”

In an FOI response to Lancashire County Coun Lizzi Collinge, Dr Watts’ ward councillor, Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust said that there had been a very clear directive issued from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that Acute Trusts must not stockpile medicines locally in preparation for Brexit.

Action would be taken against Trusts that do instigate local stockpiling.

Instead, actions are being co-ordinated centrally and a request has been made to all suppliers of licensed medicines to build an additional six-week stockpile of medicines.

It said it is continuing to monitor the situation closely, and is prepared to take local action when appropriate.

This week, Lancaster City Council warned that a no-deal Brexit will adversely affect every single business and resident in the Lancaster District.

Lancaster and Fleetwood MP Cat Smith said: “I am alarmed that a no deal exit from the EU would open up our NHS to takeover by US corporations in a Tory trade deal with Donald Trump.

“Having been re-elected in June 2017 being clear that we need to stop no deal to protect our NHS I was happy to take up Jenny’s concerns directly with Michael Gove as the minister responsible for no deal.

“Our NHS is under threat from both a Tory government and threats of no deal.

“In June, Donald Trump said the NHS would be on the table in a UK-US trade deal.

“Selling off the NHS to US corporations is the reality of a no deal Brexit.

“Boris Johnson promised there would be £350m a week for the NHS, but the truth is that no deal would put the NHS and social care under huge pressure with staff shortages, a lack of medicines and less money to invest in hospitals.”

The Department for Health and Social Care said it is in the process of procuring an express freight service to bring medicines and medical products, including medical radioisotopes, to the UK within 24 to 72 hours if required following October 31.

A spokeswoman said: ““We recognise the vital importance of medical radioisotopes and action is being taken to safeguard supplies after Brexit.

“Where medicines have a short shelf life and cannot be stockpiled, such as medical radioisotopes, we have asked suppliers to have plans in place to air freight these medicines so patients can continue their treatment uninterrupted.

“We want to reassure patients we are doing everything necessary to make sure they can access the medicines and medical products they need after 31 October, whatever the circumstances.”