On 27 February 2023, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that agreement had been reached on changes to the operation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.
The Protocol has been in effect since 1 January 2021 requiring that all goods coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain comply with EU regulations. The UK Government and EU Commission have both made proposals in relation to the operation of the Protocol over the last two years. One approach adopted by the UK Government was to introduce the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill on 13 June 2022 providing UK with power to make further changes to it. In response to the Bill being introduced, the European Commission announced it was proceeding with legal action against the UK. Since then, negotiations between the UK Government and the European Commission increased in intensity and this led to the announcement of the agreement called “Windsor Framework”. Part of the new Windsor Framework is a political declaration published by both parties which confirms that the UK Government will not be proceeding with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and that the European Commission will halt its legal proceedings relating to the Protocol against the UK.
The Framework (This publication is available at www.gov.uk/official-documents)
The original Protocol applied all EU rules and authorisation requirements for medicines, notwithstanding that medicine supply is an essential state function. This meant that for novel medicines, including innovative cancer drugs, it was the EMA, not the MHRA, which approved medicines for the Northern Ireland market. This failed to recognise or accommodate for the fact that the overwhelming flow of medicines to Northern Ireland is from Great Britain, with medicines provided for the UK market as a whole.
The EU made a series of changes to its rules last year to address some of these issues, addressing regulatory requirements which prevented medicines flows and supporting the MHRAs continued ability to authorise generic drugs under a single licence for the whole UK. This, combined with the UKs own Northern Ireland Medicines Authorisation Route (NIMAR), has ensured that medicines have continued to flow uninterrupted into Northern Ireland. But these arrangements were not a complete solution for the long-term and did not address the EMAs role in licensing novel medicines, leaving Northern Ireland exposed to divergence as UK and EU rules changed into the future.
This uncertainty, as well as the requirement for Northern Ireland drugs to meet various EU labelling requirements, risked discontinuations if firms were unwilling to maintain two sets of labels and packs for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This was not a sustainable way forward and has been addressed by this deal.
Under the agreement, both UK and EU have listened to the needs of industry and the healthcare sector and secured an unprecedented settlement that provides a comprehensive carve-out from EU rules: fully safeguarding the supply of medicines from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, and once again asserting the primacy of UK regulation.
As a result, it will be for the MHRA to approve all drugs for the whole UK market. This will enable all types of medicines to be supplied in single packs, within UK supply chains, with a single licence for the whole UK. This will provide a long-term, durable basis for medicines supplies into Northern Ireland.
- Specifically, the whole of the Falsified Medicines Directive has been disapplied for medicines supplied to Northern Ireland, ending the unnecessary situation in which – even with grace periods – wholesalers and pharmacies in Northern Ireland were expected to keep barcode scanners to check individual labels.
- And for the provision of innovative drugs to patients, Northern Ireland will be reintegrated back into a UK-only regulatory environment, with the European Medicines Agency removed from having any role.
- This responds to the overwhelming calls from industry for stability and certainty, and can give reassurance to patients and clinicians in Northern Ireland well into the future.
At the same time, the agreement safeguards frictionless access to the EU market for world-leading Northern Ireland pharmaceutical and medical technology firms. This pragmatic dual-regulatory system protects business, patients and healthcare services, and reflects that it is an essential state function to maintain and oversee the supply of medicines within the whole United Kingdom.
Proposal for a Regulation (This publication is available at EU commision website here)
The European Commission has published a proposal for a Regulation that in essence carves-out medicinal products destined for the UK internal market from the EU pharmaceutical rules. Article 4(1) of the proposed Regulation provides that centrally-authorised products cannot be placed on the market in Northern Ireland. Such medicines may be placed on the market in Northern Ireland if all the following conditions are met:
- the competent authorities of the UK have authorised the placing on the market of the product in accordance with the law of the UK and under the terms of the authorisation granted by the competent authorities of the UK;
- the medicinal product concerned shall bear an individual label which shall be attached to the packaging of the medicinal product in a conspicuous place in such a way as to be easily visible, clearly legible, and indelible; it shall not be in any way be hidden, obscured, detracted from, or interrupted by any other written or pictorial matter or any other intervening material. it shall state the following words: “UK only”.
- the UK shall provide the European Commission with written guarantees that the placing on the market of the medicinal products does not increase the risk to public health in the internal market and that those medicinal products will not be moved to a Member State.