A new expert panel of clinicians is to be established to give swift advice on the prescription of cannabis-based medicines to individual patients, the Government has said.
The announcement follows widespread outrage over the confiscation from mother Charlotte Caldwell of cannabis oil supplies which she brought from Canada for her 12-year-old son Billy, who has acute epilepsy.
After Billy was rushed to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on Friday night in a critical condition having suffered multiple seizures, Home Secretary Sajid Javid granted a 20-day emergency licence granting use of the oil.
Billy was discharged from hospital early on Monday afternoon, but now Ms Caldwell, 50, from Co Tyrone, wants an urgent review of the law on the substance, which is banned in the UK despite being available in many other countries.
There was confusion after Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested that Mr Javid had already launched a review.
Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t think anyone who followed that story could sensibly say that we are getting the law on this kind of thing right.
“I think we all know that we need to find a different way.”
Asked whether the parents of children like Billy would still be facing similar problems in months’ or weeks’ time, Mr Hunt replied: “I sincerely hope not.”
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said Labour supports the legal prescription of cannabis oil for medical purposes, saying: “Children have been put at risk and experienced extraordinary suffering because this Government drags its heels and refuses to grant cannabis oil licences.”
But Prime Minister Theresa May suggested that the Government would look only into the operation of the current system of licences for use in individual cases, rather than reviewing the law more widely.
“But what needs to drive us in all these cases has to be what clinicians are saying about these issues.
“There’s a very good reason why we’ve got a set of rules around cannabis and other drugs, because of the impact that they have on people’s lives, and we must never forget that.”
Home Office minister Nick Hurd told the House of Commons that cases of children like Billy and Alfie Dingley had “highlighted the need for the Government to explore the issue further and our handling of these issues further”.
He announced that Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies will take forward the establishment of the expert clinicians’ panel to advise ministers on any individual applications to prescribe cannabis-based medications.
“The Government has a duty to protect these patients and sufferers. When will they act?” she asked in the Commons.
“Why is the Government stuck in the Middle Ages?”
Conservative former minister Sir Mike Penning said he would personally lead a delegation to fetch medicines to treat six-year-old Alfie’s epilepsy if the Warwickshire boy had not received them by Wednesday.
Ms Caldwell has demanded a meeting with the Home Secretary and the Health Secretary “within 24 hours”.
Speaking outside hospital, she said: “I will ask them to urgently implement a programme that provides immediate access to the meds Billy so urgently needs and now more so than ever the many other children affected by this historic development.
“I will also ask them to implement a review of how the Government, our Government, our UK Government, can make cannabis-based medication available to all patients who urgently require it in our country.”
She said the Government was panicked into action by her son’s admission to hospital, having previously suggested she should make the application to have his medication released herself.
“The fact that Billy has been discharged is testimony to the effectiveness of the treatment and underlines how vital it is that every child and every single family affected in our country should have immediate access to the very same medication,” said Ms Caldwell.
Labour MP Andy McDonald, whose son Rory died as a result of epilepsy, wrote to Mr Javid calling for a blanket exemption on the use of cannabis oil to alleviate the illness, along with measures to ensure supplies of the substance.
Mr McDonald wrote: “I am firmly of the view that when paediatricians and neurologists are struggling with intractable epilepsy cases, if in their considered medical view cannabis oil would be efficacious, then they should be permitted to administer it, safe in the knowledge that it is lawful to do so.”
The director of external affairs at the MS Society, Genevieve Edwards, welcomed Mr Hurd’s announcement.
“We’re looking forward to hearing more details and hope the Government goes further than just reviewing individual cases,” said Ms Edwards.
“Evidence shows that cannabis for medicinal use could work for around 10,000 people with MS to relieve pain and muscle spasms. It’s simply wrong that people are being driven to break the law to relieve these relentless symptoms. We think the Government should make it available to those who could benefit.”