Sajid Javid ignored warnings about HRT shortages last year because No10 was too obsessed with Covid, a drugmaker has claimed.
Supplies of the most popular HRT gels have been short for months, leaving desperate women to ration prescriptions or turn to the black market.
Campaigners and MPs say the problem stems from a lack of planning by the government in the face of growing demand. But ministers blame manufacturing problems caused by the pandemic.
London-based company Theramex, which makes hormone replacement therapy gels, said it warned the Department of Health of the impending crisis last October.
Tina Backhouse, the company’s UK chief executive, told The Telegraph: “We have spoken to the Department of Health about this, about how to [fix this issue in October]. But the problem was that all people wanted to talk about at the time was Covid.
A second email in February – when the shortages started to hit – also fell on deaf ears, she said.
A national shortage of Estrogen, the most popular HRT drug used by around 30,000 women, is causing the crisis.
Manufacturers said the issue could be resolved within days if NHS red tape was cut to allow pharmacists to prescribe alternative products.
Sajid Javid ignored warnings about HRT shortages last year because the government was too obsessed with Covid, a drugmaker has claimed
There were around 512,000 NHS prescriptions written for ‘female sex hormones and their modulators’ in England in February, according to the latest official data, up from 265,000 in March 2017. Many of these will be HRT drugs, but some may include other female hormonal drugs such as as contraceptives
A nationwide shortage of Oestrogel (left), the most popular HRT drug used by around 30,000 women, is behind the crisis. Bijuve (right), made by Theramex, is considered an alternative to Estrogel. However, it is only available in Oxford, Somerset and Norfolk
Bijuve, manufactured by Theramex, is considered an alternative to Estrogel.
But it is currently only available in Oxford, Somerset and Norfolk because HRT drugs are approved locally rather than nationally, which has created a ‘postcode lottery’.
NHS formulary committees – which decide which drugs may be available locally – are “two years behind” approving new drugs, Ms Backhouse said.
Theramex says it has pallets of supplies gathering dust in a warehouse but cannot ship them due to bureaucracy.
Ms Backhouse claimed the current shortages ‘could have been avoided’ if her emails had not been ignored.
Measures to increase manufacturing capacity now or add to the national list will take time to implement, as thousands of women continue to suffer from symptoms without effective medication, she said.
Ms Backhouse warned that increasing manufacturing capacity takes time and that companies like Theramex and others producing alternatives to Estrogel cannot increase production instantly.
“It’s not just like ‘oh, add another line and we’ll have 1,000 more next week,’ it doesn’t work like that,” she added. “That’s not the short-term solution.”
Last week the government appointed a former head of the Covid vaccine task force as the new HRT czar to bring the crisis under control.
Madeleine McTernan’s first move was to introduce a three-month prescription limit on Oestrogel and two other popular brands to ration supplies.
Madelaine McTernan (pictured) has been named the new HRT Czar and will lead efforts to address drug shortages.
Alternative makers say they are only now being called in for a meeting with Mr Javid and Ms McTernan.
Besins – the maker of Oestrogel – announced last week that it would not be able to increase supply to meet demand for at least another month.
The number of women seeking the rub treatment, which works by allowing the hormone estrogen to be absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin, has soared to around 30,000, double from a year ago.
The company said it aims to meet growing demand, but won’t be able to do so until June at the earliest.
MailOnline revealed on Monday that UK sellers were charging up to four times the NHS price for the drug on eBay as they took advantage of a nationwide shortage.
HRT CRISIS IN GREAT BRITAIN: WHY THE UK IS SEEING DEMAND RISE AND SUPPLY DRYING UP
Women face a shortage of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) supplies amid growing demand for this type of treatment.
What is HRT?
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is a treatment to relieve symptoms by replacing hormones that are at a low level as you approach menopause.
HRT can help relieve most symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, vaginal dryness and reduced libido.
What is the current supply situation?
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) said HRT prescriptions had more than doubled in England over the past five years, from 238,000 in January 2017 to nearly 538,000 in December 2021.
The Department of Health (DH) said demand for HRT had increased dramatically, with a 38% increase in the number of prescription items over the past seven years.
Why has demand exploded?
The DH said there was greater awareness of menopause and greater confidence among GPs in prescribing HRT.
What is the ripple effect of this higher demand?
Acute shortages have reportedly driven women to share their prescriptions, some reportedly driven suicidal by the debilitating menopausal symptoms they suffer without medication.
The DH said while most of the 70 HRT products available in the UK remain in good condition, a range of factors, including increased demand, have led to shortages of a limited number of products, including Oestrogel.
What is the government doing about it?
At the end of April, the government announced that the director general of the vaccines task force, Madelaine McTernan, had been appointed to lead a new task force on the supply of HRT.
Her role will be to identify ways to support the HRT supply chain and address shortages some women face on a limited number of products, DH said.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Ms McTernan “will use her excellent skills and expertise to build on the success of the Vaccine Task Force to boost the supply of lifesaving medicines for women across the country”.
The DH also said it was issuing severe shortage protocols (SSPs) to limit the distribution of three high-demand products to ensure women can access the HRT they need.
These are Oestrogel 750 mcg/actuation pump gel, Ovestin 1 mg cream and Premique low dose 0.3 mg/1.5 mg modified release tablets.
The SSPs are due to expire on July 29 and are intended to allow community pharmacists to dispense the three specified HRT products according to the protocol rather than the written prescription, without needing to seek permission from the prescriber.
The DH said this would “even out” the distribution of in-demand products such as Estrogel.
What is the HRT working group responsible for?
The government said the task force will engage with HRT suppliers to ensure there is a good understanding of supply constraints and what is or can be done to address them in the short and long term.
It will also work with the NHS Business Services Authority to secure access to real-time THS distribution data to improve understanding of supply, demand and the causes of shortages.
The task force will also need to engage with professional bodies including the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee to help pharmacists and prescribers ensure that they respond appropriately to increased demand.
What about prescription fees?
The DH said it was taking action to increase access and reduce the cost of HRT by allowing women to pay a one-time charge equivalent to two one-time prescription fees, currently £18.70, for all their HRT prescriptions HRT for a year.
Known as a prepayment certificate, it is intended to allow women to access HRT on a monthly basis, easing pressure on supply, while keeping the cost of HRT low. This system will be implemented from April 2023.
Is it early enough?
Not according to the RPS, which called the schedule “disappointing”.
Thorrun Govind, chairman of RPS England, said: “Delaying this decision will frustrate many who are already paying for monthly HRT prescriptions and will further lead to the health inequalities already suffered by women across the country.”
She said HRT prescriptions are ‘essential’ but also ‘a financial drain during a cost of living crisis’ as she called for prescription fees for such treatment to be scrapped entirely in England.