Access to arthritis medication and joint replacements in the advent of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit

A nurse showing an older lady what tablets to take, in her home.

Updated: 2 April 2019. In this article we explain what a no-deal Brexit might mean for access to medication for people with arthritis.

Note: The information below should be read alongside the official advice and frequently asked questions on NHS England’s website.

A ‘no-deal’ Brexit would bring a series of changes to the relationship between the UK and the EU. Here we are only focusing on access to medicines and medical devices which include items like the components that are used in joint replacement operations.

What could change?

Under current arrangements, and until Brexit takes place, medicines and medical devices in the UK are regulated by several laws and agencies at the EU level. These provide a single system across the EU to test, approve and monitor the safety of new and existing treatments and devices.

In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will take on responsibility for this type of regulation, including how medicines and medical devices are made, imported, supplied and sold.

In November 2018, the MHRA carried out a public consultation on what the new regulatory system should look like if there is a no-deal Brexit. As members of the Association of Medical Research Charities and the Brexit Health Alliance we supported their responses to this consultation.

The outcome of this consultation was published at the end of February 2019. We were pleased to see detailed plans have been developed to ensure medicines and medical devices would remain approved and available for patients in the UK for a limited period. This guidance also covered plans to ensure EU-backed clinical trials taking place in the UK can continue, and that importing experimental medicines for trials will continue to be allowed.

How has the Government prepared for this situation?

The UK Government has put in place a series of measures in order to prevent any short-term interruption to the supply and availability of medicines in the event of a no-deal Brexit, including ‘fast-tracking’ several necessary changes to UK law.

As part of its preparations, the Government has worked with pharmaceutical companies to identify medicines which are currently imported from the EU. It has asked these companies to stockpile an additional six weeks supply to reduce the impact of any potential delays on imports to the UK. For medicines with a short shelf-life that can’t be stored for long periods, the Government has asked UK suppliers to ensure plans are in place to air freight these products into the country. Plans have also been put in place so medications and medical devices are prioritised as part of additional shipping capacity between the EU and UK.

While most arthritis medication, including painkillers and biologic drugs, have a shelf-life longer than six weeks, it should be noted that drug suppliers have raised concerns with Parliament about the logistics and implementation of these plans.

For medical devices, which can include hip, knee and other joint replacements, the Government has convened a working group with industry and trade associations to test its contingency planning, so these can still be imported to the UK following Brexit. Most recently, the Department of Health and Social Care has set-up an emergency ‘hotline’ for NHS suppliers to use if they experience any disruption to deliveries as a result of Brexit, and the Department is also working with their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to support them in any preparations.

What might this mean for you?

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, has asked clinicians in the NHS to advise patients not to store additional medicine at home (PDF, 396 KB). People should continue to obtain prescriptions and use their medicines in the normal way.

In addition, the Government has unilaterally offered that it will continue to pay for any healthcare costs for current or former UK residents who are living, working in, or visiting the EU in the event of a no deal Brexit until the end of December 2020. Some EU countries, such as Spain, have already committed to ensuring access to healthcare for UK nationals and the UK Government will also fund, for up to one year, healthcare for UK nationals who have applied for, or are undergoing treatment in the EU before the UK leaves.

However, alongside the above information, the Government has also made it clear that it may not be able to guarantee access to healthcare abroad in a no-deal scenario, and continues to advise UK residents to take out travel insurance for any overseas travel.

What next?

In the short term, it is very difficult to fully understand the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit and how it might affect the availability of medicines and access to surgery like joint replacement. However, we will continue to monitor the ongoing situation to ensure that the needs of people with arthritis are considered.

If you would like to speak about any concerns about access to treatments please call our free helpline on 0800 5200 520. Our lines are open from 9am-8pm Monday to Friday.