First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and Dumbarton MSP Jackie Baillie, Labour’s Scottish health spokesperson.

By Bill Heaney

What is First Minister Nicola Sturgeon going to do to address reported shortages of antibiotics, in light of the growing number of Strep A cases, Conservative MSP Rachael Hamilton asked her in the Holyrood parliament on Thursday. 

However, despite the Health Secretary Humza Yousaf re-assuring MSPs just a few days ago that all was well on the antibiotics supply front, Ms Sturgeon attempted top duck the question despite Dumbarton MSP telling parliament the situation was “alarming”..

The First Minister said said: “Medicines supply is a reserved matter, but the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has discussed the issue with the United Kingdom Government to seek assurances about supply of antibiotics to treat group A Strep, in response to the sharp increase in demand.

“We have been advised that manufacturers in the UK currently have adequate supplies of antibiotics and that wholesalers and manufacturers are working at speed to continually replenish stock.

“Scottish Government officials have issued a medicine supply alert notice providing advice to healthcare professionals on prescribing options, including alternative antibiotics if the first-line option is unavailable. In addition to that, work is under way to further strengthen the resilience of the supply chain, including by releasing antibiotics from medicines stockpiles, increasing manufacture of antibiotic liquid preparation and, where necessary, importing additional supplies.”

Rachael Hamilton – “Does the First Minister accept that the health secretary should be more aware of the seriousness of the situation with antibiotics supply in Scotland, instead of burying his head in the sand?”

However, Rachael Hamilton was not content with this answer. She told Ms Sturgeon: “Just today, the health secretary claimed that there are no shortages of antibiotics here. At the same time, NHS Scotland said that a medicine supply alert was imminent. Doctors in my constituency in the Borders have described the situation as horrendous. Hospital staff and pharmacists have echoed those concerns and chemists cannot get hold even of liquid penicillin to treat kids who have sore throats.

“Does the First Minister accept that the health secretary should be more aware of the seriousness of the situation with antibiotics supply in Scotland, instead of burying his head in the sand?”

The First Minister replied: “This is a really serious issue that involves the health of children. I believe that we all take that seriously, and I think that we should treat the issue in that context. Nobody is burying their head in the sand over this. Notwithstanding the fact that, as I said earlier, medicines supply is actually a reserved matter—it is not within the responsibilities of this Parliament or this Government—we take our responsibilities seriously. This week, the Cabinet had a very lengthy discussion on Strep A in general, and on antibiotics supply, in particular. The chief pharmaceutical officer took part in that discussion.

“We are, of course, aware of some localised supply problems with penicillin and amoxicillin liquid preparations due to the increase in demand across the whole UK, but such demand-led shortages are not uncommon. The national health service has robust systems in place to deal with them, and the assessment right now is that there is sufficient supply in the UK to meet needs.

“That said, where there are shortages of liquid penicillin, for example, notices are put out about alternatives that can be used—the solid form of the same antibiotics or, sometimes, alternative antibiotics. With alternative antibiotics, we have the option of drawing down from medicines stockpiles.

“Such issues are of the utmost seriousness and I ask all members to treat them in that way. Everybody takes the matter very seriously and we are all working hard and working together to make sure that there is a good response now, in the face of rising demand.”

Jackie Baillie, the MSP for Dumbarton constituency and Labour’s health spokesperson, said: “Many parents from my constituency were in touch last week about the lack of antibiotics for their children who were suspected of having Strep A. One mother with a two-year-old child had to contact more than 20 pharmacies before their prescription was filled.

“At the start of last week, Humza Yousaf told the Parliament that there was no problem with supply, but unfortunately that is not the reality. He was clearly confused, because the First Minister’s Government has just issued an antibiotics shortage alert.

“Can the First Minister tell us whether Humza Yousaf was wrong? Will she outline what steps she will take to address the supply chain issues and reassure parents?”

Ms Sturgeon then told MSPs: “Jackie Baillie stood up then and acted as if she was giving information that was somehow new. I said in my original answer that the Scottish Government had issued a medicine supply alert notice, and we do that for a particular reason. 

“Humza Yousaf has been, and continues to be, right in what he says. There is no overall shortage of antibiotics, but when there is a surge in demand—not just in the case of Strep A, but in other situations—there will often be localised shortages.

“However, there are systems in place in the NHS to deal with that. When the particular first-line antibiotic for any condition might be in shortage, there are alternatives. Part of the purpose of the supply notice is to advise healthcare practitioners of the alternatives that can be used if liquid penicillin, for example, which is the first-line antibiotic in this case, is not available. That is the proper way to do things. Everybody is treating the matter with the utmost seriousness.

“The factual point that medicines supply is not within the responsibilities of this Government: unfortunately, it is a reserved matter. We continue to work with the UK Government, but we also to do everything that we can to ensure adequate supply, and that is what we will continue to do.”

Jackie Baillie said later:  “This alarming news will add to the fears Scots already have about the months ahead.  Our NHS is already facing one of the most difficult winters in its history – we cannot afford to make a bad picture worse with antibiotic shortages.

“Last week Humza Yousaf said there was no problem with supply and even though one of my constituents had to visit 20 pharmacies to get their two-year-old child’s prescription, he remained in denial.

“The SNP cannot keep downplaying the seriousness of this problem. We need real transparency on the scale of the problem and a proper plan to tackle it.”

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