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Top UK doctors warn Boris Johnson that no-deal Brexit would cause key cancer therapy supply shortages

Published on 02/08/19 at 12:30pm

Top doctors from some of the UK’s foremost nuclear medicine associations have written a letter to recently-anointed Prime Minister Boris Johnson voicing concerns over the nation’s ability to deliver cancer treatments to patients if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal.

Representatives from the Royal College of Radiologists, the British Nuclear Medicine Society and the UK Radiopharmacy Group warned that a dry run of emergency medical supply deliveries

Including a major supplier of radioisotopes was unable to be successfully fast-tracked through customs, with smaller firms also reporting problems. Radioisotopes are a key element of some methods for scanning for cancer, with around one million patients in the UK requiring the radioactive atoms for diagnosis or treatment every year.

Because of the nature of the nuclear material, it cannot be stockpiled in the manner the government plans to with other medicines expected to be in short supply following a hard Brexit. The material decays rapidly, so any delays at the border means that isotope shipments could become unusable. Traditionally, the UK only manufactures only one kind of radioisotope within its borders – the rest are imported, with the “vast majority” coming from the EU.

Compounding the issue, only a small number of drivers are licensed to transport the materials.

“This means that any consignment which is late through customs may not make the timed delivery run, and there are no licensed people for a back-up delivery run,” said John Buscombe, President of British Nuclear Medicine Society. The letter to the Prime Minister stresses the need for more drivers to be licensed and schedules modified to minimise the impact of delays.

The Royal College of Radiologists had warned of these issues in March, but the tests in April reinforced concerns.

The Department of Health said that “action is being taken to safeguard supplies”. In February, it said that the UK’s major radioisotope suppliers had committed to six-month air freight contracts in the event of a no-deal Brexit, which are less susceptible to delays than ferries.

“We are working closely with all our partners and our plans should ensure the supply of medicines and medical products remains uninterrupted,” commented a Department of Health and Social Care official.

Matt Fellows

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