I want to undertake an exercise with you of ‘imagine if’. This is not an imaginary game, but a serious projection of the consequences of the real and present danger facing the nation’s health following a disorderly departure from the EU.
Imagine the impact of a medicines supply shortage following the fall-out from a no-deal Brexit. In just 79 days we are going to be wrenched from our major medicines supply artery that provides essential drugs to millions of people in the UK. To put the scale of the impending crisis into perspective, 7.9 million people in the UK live with cardiovascular disease. They are at increased risk of heart disease and require several daily medications to prevent or minimise the chances of a future potentially fatal heart attack. Forget for a moment the catastrophic impact a medicines shortage would have on our hospitals. What I am describing here, is the everyday supply of medicines obtained from local pharmacies by way of a prescription.
In 2017 1,105.8 million prescriptions were dispensed by UK pharmacies. That is just over three million prescriptions per day dispensed from 11,699 retail chemists. The distribution of vital medications to every individual in the UK who requires prescription medication occurs quietly, discreetly and without fuss or fanfare. This finely tuned logistical operation plays out every day up and down our city’s high streets and in our towns and villages. It is one of the vital series of links that sustains the health of our nation.
Food shortages have already been extensively debated and discussed within parliament and across the media. Some people have already started stockpiling and yes it would be frightening. Only two world wars have precipitated such a prior civil emergency. However, as scary as the prospect may seem, especially for the elderly, the frail and those with young children, food items can be substituted at point-of-purchase. If there are no tomatoes buying cucumbers may be inconvenient, but hardly life-threatening. Moreover, you can substitute food items at will. Yes, food prices will rise, but UK consumers will be forced to adjust. As members of the European Research Group keep reminding us, “the UK took rationing in its stride”. It made us the plucky, resilient nation we are today. Unfortunately, medicine is not food. You do not need a new doctor’s prescriptions, blood tests to check for potential side effects or reassurance from a healthcare professional regarding the long-term safety for such an enforced switch of food choice.
Imagine taking a short trip to the chemist, only to be told that the drugs you have been taking for your heart disease, asthma, cancer or diabetes have run out. When you ask the pharmacist, he or she is forced to simply repeat what he has been informed to say by the government. That you should go back and speak to your doctor regarding your medication. He or she will look concerned, but is unable to provide any further re-assurance. You call the surgery and after almost an hour of impatiently waiting on the end of the line to get through, you jump in the car and drive to the doctor. Here you find a queue of anxious patients snaking out of the entrance, waiting to speak to anyone who can provide information or reassurance. These scenarios may sound like a far-fetched dystopia. They have been dismissed as ‘project fear’ by Brexiters and blithely described in radio and TV interviews by the new Conservative cabinet as “bumps in the road”. For those in the know, however, logistics experts, healthcare administrators and civil servants not yet gagged by the increasingly desperate attempts of Dominic Cummings to control information flow, these are real risks. They have been meticulously calculated and are now increasingly likely as we move towards an acrimonious and disastrous no-deal Brexit.
Unfortunately, it is not just the lack of medication itself that will spark a health crisis. The raised levels of anxiety and uncertainty that are likely to result will exacerbate many existing patient conditions. Asthma, cardiovascular disease, cancers and most neurological conditions, for example, are all sensitive to stress. If the shortages go on for days with the accompanying uncertainty, stress levels will skyrocket, with enforced hospitalisation required for the worst affected. Services will quickly be overwhelmed.
The blame game has already started. The EU is being branded intransigent, unbending and unwilling to compromise. They will be castigated as having put our nation’s health in peril. It is up to each and every one of us to hold this government to account. When the first consequences of this impending healthcare crisis begins to unfold, we must make our voice heard and place the blame firmly and squarely on those members of the Conservative party who have placed their ideology of isolation from Europe ahead of the health and welfare of the people. Let nobody be in doubt. The Conservative party must be shown to have the nation’s blood on its hands.