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Brexit disruption to NI medicine supply lines would be unacceptable – minister

By David Young, PA

Stormont’s Health Minister has voiced concern about the supply line of medicines to Northern Ireland as a result of a looming Brexit regulatory barrier.

Under the terms of Brexit’s contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, the region is to operate under different regulatory rules for medicines and medical devices than the rest of the UK.

Northern Ireland currently secures 98% of its supplies from Great Britain.

A one-year grace period delaying the implementation of this aspect of the protocol is due to expire at the end of the year.

Health Minister Robin Swann told his Assembly scrutiny committee that the EU’s ill-fated attempt to suspend a part of the protocol in January, amid a dispute with vaccine manufacturers over exporting jabs out of the bloc, had impacted efforts to prepare for the end of the grace period.

“It is something that concerns me and that’s why we have been engaged quite significantly in regards to this,” he said.

“The derogation period for medicines was one of the longest that was actually agreed at the start which gave us to the end of this year actually to get things sorted out and in a better place.

“Everyone thought that work was progressing well until the EU triggered Article 16 over vaccines – that unnerved people, that unsettled people and that has, I suppose, increased the level of concern that we’re seeing, especially from the smaller and the more intricate suppliers of medicines and medical devices.”

The UK is pressing the EU to agree to a further year extension of the grace period on medicines and medical supplies.

Mr Swann said longer term solutions to the medical supply issue lay with ongoing negotiations between the UK and EU on resolutions to some of the problems created by the protocol.

“It would be unacceptable that our medicines or medical devices are impacted and the supply of them,” he said.

“We are a small part of the overall UK market in regards to many of these big pharma companies and I see no reason why we should be treated differently.”

Mr Swann told the Stormont health committee he would welcome any further extension.

“When grace periods were initially indicated the one for medicines and medical devices was the longest because they indicated and they knew the difficulties that were going to be addressed,” he said.

“Any extension to a grace period would be welcome because it would allow us to put firmer foundations into the supplies that’s needed and that also takes into considerations what political movements or decisions or discussions or agreements can be made between the UK Government and the EU, specifically in regards to the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland.”

Mr Swann was asked about the issue during his committee appearance by DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley.

Mr Buckley asked the minister to confirm that medical supplies would not have been an issue if the Brexit deal had resulted in Northern Ireland leaving the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.

“That is a political question and, from my point of view, as an Ulster Unionist health minister, I would agree, yes,” Mr Swann replied.

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