Community pharmacists say the uncertainty over no-deal Brexit is already having an impact on their business as issues with supplies are forcing up the price of key medicines.
The lack of political clarity over the UK leaving the EU with or without a deal in six weeks time has left many smaller chemists struggling to plan for the future, with one telling HuffPost UK: “It’s one of the worst times in the industry I’ve ever known.”
Problems being faced by high-street pharmacies is the latest in a series of no-deal Brexit warnings, from potential plant closures at Airbus, to the possibility that holidaymakers will be hit as travel insurance companies fail to guarantee payouts.
Retailers warned earlier this week that food shortages could lead to higher prices and emptier shelves in the short-term.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock also said this week that medicines would be prioritised over food in the case of no deal Brexit to ensure there would be no impact on the health industry supply chain.
But pharmacist Ash Kumar, who works in Maidenhead, said he was already struggling to get hold of some drugs and he had started to stockpile certain key medicines in case they can’t get hold of them in the future.
He said: “Brexit has affected us, most of our suppliers are from the EU and availability is already scarce with prices going up.
“We are a business at the end of the day and we’re paying out of our own pocket to ensure people get what they need. In some cases we are paying three of four times more for prescriptions than we are being reimbursed by the NHS.”
Kumar added that his pharmacy had started making arrangements with local GPs about alternative prescriptions that could be provided to patients in case they run out of their usual drugs.
“We’re getting a lot of panic from customers asking questions about what might happen, and that all adds to the workload. We’re doing everything we can but it’s a big issue,” he said.
Ali Jaff, who works at another small pharmacy in the town, said they’d been having problems since October: “No one knows what’s going on. It’s horrible, everything’s out of stock and it’s costing us money.”
Jaff said Naproxin - an anti-inflammatory pain killer - was costing them £15 a packet, but the NHS was only willing to reimburse them £4 for the prescription.
Indira Panchal, based in Bedford, said her business was following Department of Health advice not to stockpile any drugs. But she said one of the biggest issues pharmacies faced was the implementation of the EU’s Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD) on February 9.
The directive requires all pharmacies to install a FMD scanner that can scan all drugs to ensure only certified medicines are stocked on shelves in an attempt to battle counterfeiting. Not only are the machines costly, staff also have to be trained in how to use them.
“Medicines prices, licensing of medicinal products, safety protocols and the health sector workforce will all be affected by the UK’s departure from the EU.The National Pharmacy Association
Due to the date’s closeness to Brexit day on March 29, and the uncertainty about whether EU directives will still apply once the UK leaves the bloc, many pharmacies are unsure what to do.
Panchal said: “The FMD is the biggest issue, it’s a lot of hassle costing a lot and if we leave the EU we’re not sure what to do with them.”
A spokesperson for the National Pharmacy Association told HuffPost UK that they have been warning their member against signing long-term contracts for the FMD scanners due to Brexit uncertainty.
They added: “Brexit is highlighting a number of issues that should have been tackled years ago. Medicines shortages have been a growing problem for months, so while Brexit appears to be exacerbating the situation, it is not the root cause.
“Medicines prices, licensing of medicinal products, safety protocols and the health sector workforce will all be affected by the UK’s departure from the EU.
“Pharmacies are a local lifeline and whatever Brexit scenario finally emerges they will continue to put the needs of patients first.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “We are working closely with pharmaceutical companies to ensure patients can continue to receive the medicines they need, including asking many of them to ensure a minimum of six weeks additional supply of medicine over and above usual buffer stocks in place by 29 March.
“Patients, doctors and community pharmacists should not stockpile medicines — we are confident that, if everyone does what they should do, the supply of medicines will be uninterrupted in the event of a no deal.”