Baroness Walmsley: As we advance towards Brexit the danger of counterfeit medicines looms

Posted On: 
7th February 2019

Fraudulent medicines threaten to endanger patients post-Brexit, writes Lib Dem peer Baroness Walmsley.

Of all the dangers of Brexit to the health of UK patients – shortage of research and medical staff, shortage of medicines, lack of availability of isotopes for radio-therapy – one which has not been mentioned is the danger of fraudulent or counterfeit medicines. Over the past couple of years EU member states have been working to put together a system called the Falsified Medicines Directive. Some manufacturers have been using the system for months, but it becomes mandatory in a few days time on the 9th February.

The objective is to give patients and professionals confidence that the medicine supplied is exactly what it says on the label – no more, no less. It guarantees the composition, strength and source of the product. At the factory the product is sealed and labelled with a bar code. When it reaches the pharmacy the bar code is read, and the information checked automatically via the computer system with the Falsified Medicines Directive database. If the medicine is genuine the pharmacist has the reassurance and confidence to dispense the medicine to patients. If not, the product is withdrawn and investigated.

If there are fewer or no checks on products coming into the country in the event of Brexit, there becomes an opportunity for attempted fraudulent supply of poorer quality medicines. Instead we will continue to have falsified medicines coming through the supply chain putting patients at an unacceptable risk and undermining the confidence in the genuine medicines we rely on.

Liberal Democrats have been fighting, and continuing to fight, for a People’s Vote, with an option to remain in the EU. We have been fighting exactly for specific things like the Falsified Medicines Direction – the systems and safeguards we all rely on, but which are often too small for flashy headlines.

Working in Parliament it is impossible not to see how the Conservative Government has been consumed by Brexit. Ministers who should be working to resolve the problems in our health service can often be dragged away for long and pointless discussions on the intricacies of doomed votes in the House of Commons. And through all this the Falsified Medicines Directive has been ignored. Small pharmacies who do not have large budgets need Government support to implement the system – a system that will improve all our safety – but the Conservative Government is either too distracted or simply unwilling to provide the needed support.

That leaves the Conservatives with three options. One is that we leave the EU and must negotiate membership of the Falsified Medicines Directive. There are clearly problems with this option as to continue to have access to the system the UK would undoubtedly have to pay a fee – money that could instead be spent on successfully implementing this much needed system in an effective way. The second option would be to leave EU, abandon this system and build our own system from scratch. Given this Conservative Government has had three years to simply implement the current system and have failed, this seems a foolish endeavour which would also cost a lot of money. The third option, and I think the best option, is to stay in the EU and use the money we save to support our pharmacies to successfully implement the Falsified Medicines Directive to protect patients from counterfeit medicines. That is why on Thursday in the House of Lords I will ask the Government what choice they will make to protect the safety of patients across the UK.