NHS paracetamol shortage sparks fears for patients recovering after operations

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Paracetamol injections are seen as the safest and most effective drug to give patients to relieve post-operative pain (Stock photo) (Image: Getty Images)
Paracetamol injections are seen as the safest and most effective drug to give patients to relieve post-operative pain (Stock photo) (Image: Getty Images)

Hospitals in England face critically low levels of paracetamol amid a national shortage of the painkiller.

Paracetamol injections are seen as the safest and most effective drug to give patients to relieve post-operative pain. But staff at one hospital trust have been told to remove the drug from all anaesthetic rooms with immediate effect.

The shortage of intravenous (IV) paracetamol is expected to continue until at least November. A Department for Health and Social Care spokesman said it was due to “capacity constraints with a manufacturer”. One hospital worker said: “It is deeply worrying. We use IV paracetamol because tablets taken orally are only 30% effective. Given by IV it is a potent and direct drug and it restricts pain very quickly.

“The alternatives are oral morphine, which is very slow-acting, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen and aspirin, which can have negative side effects such as bleeding and allergic reactions.” Drug shortages have become a global problem made worse by the Covid pandemic, war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and high inflation. Last winter France banned the internet sale of paracetamol products in a shortage blamed on a Chinese export ban of the raw materials required.

Brexit is blamed for making the problem worse in Britain, with drug imports from the EU – historically two-thirds of the NHS supply – at their lowest level since we left. The health department’s spokesman said: “Guidance has been issued to the NHS advising on how to manage the issue and we are working with those in the supply chain to resolve this as soon as possible.”

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Labour’s shadow health minister Liz Kendall said: “Concerned staff and patients will understandably be seeking reassurance that the pain relief they need is available. The government must spell out the urgent steps being taken to resolve the shortage.”

It comes as the Covid Inquiry heard that a lack of nurses left the NHS and Britain vulnerable to the pandemic. The infection control lead at the Royal College of Nursing also told the probe that a lack of planning for an airborne coronavirus meant there was a national shortage of PPE.

Rosemary Gallagher, the RCN’s professional lead for infection prevention and control, said: “The resilience of the health and care workforce is absolutely essential in order to be able to deliver health care services that meet the public's needs. We know that we went into the pandemic with a significant shortage, about 50,000 nurses short.

“That immediately put us at risk when we needed to surge capacity to support patients at home and in hospitals.” The intervention came on the day a damning international study warned Britain has fewer nurses than other developed nations.

Nicola Small

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