The supply of medicines, medical devices, and other healthcare products such as PPE was placed under immense strain during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was particularly the case during March and April 2020, when the volume of medicines passing through the supply chain rose substantially. The existing system was stressed to the extreme, with demand in both primary and secondary care increasing considerably. Many prescriptions in primary care were written for three months instead of 28 days, and critical care medicines experienced a significant uplift in demand from Intensive Care Units. These were also important treatments in primary care, for example in ‘end-of-life’ treatments. With the additional challenge of some wholesaling staff self-isolating, the strain on HDA members was made even greater.
The HDA has been working closely with its members and supply chain partners to help ensure that patients continue to receive the right medicine, in the right place, at the right time despite these challenges. Indeed, we have worked with partners such as the Department for Health and Social Care, NHS England and NHS Improvement, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), and pharmacy and pharmaceutical manufacturing trade bodies to identify and mitigate possible impediments to the safe and secure distribution of increased volumes of medicines.
Accounting for the current exceptional circumstances, measures have been put in place to support wholesalers in addressing the challenges arising from COVID-19. Examples of such measures include:
- Exceptional Good Distribution Practice (GDP) flexibilities from the MHRA that minimise business burden during the pandemic
- The recognition by Government of wholesaling staff as key workers, providing greater access to schooling and COVID-19 antigen testing
- Formal Government recognition of the crucial role being played by healthcare distributors in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic
- An NHS England Standard Operating Procedure for out-of-hours and weekend access to emergency orders from wholesalers for NHS Trusts
Thanks to the flexibility of the healthcare distribution sector and significant upfront investment by HDA member companies, the supply of medicines has been maintained throughout the pandemic. Now with the first COVID-19 vaccines receiving market authorisation, the HDA has been heavily involved in the roll-out, including through:
- Persuading the Government to make use of the existing wholesale network to distribute vaccines, as opposed to creating a new system from the ground up
- Raising awareness of the logistical challenges associated with the distribution of vaccines among media and political stakeholders, particularly around the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine with regards to cold chain requirements
- Engaging with Government to make the case for including the pharmacy sector in the vaccination locations list, and for the inclusion of distributors in the vaccine prioritisation schedule
- Monitoring member workforce availability and engaging directly with the Government to alleviate issues as they are reported by HDA member companies.
Our priority remains the safe and secure distribution of medicines, which in itself is predicated on the safety of wholesaling staff. This is why the HDA has been pushing for COVID-19 vaccinations for all our sector’s key workers who have played, and continue to play, a very critical role in the supply of all medicines to hospitals, community pharmacies and dispensing doctors across the four countries of the United Kingdom.
From Factory to Pharmacy
As part of our mission to build awareness, understanding and appreciation of the vital importance of the healthcare distribution sector, we developed an infographic explaining the availability of medicines. It identifies the factors that can impact drug supply, as well as the measures that HDA members undertake day in, day out to help mitigate the risks of patients not receiving their medicines.See the Infographic
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