5 Jul 2021

A new UK Government Life Sciences strategy is due to be launched soon – possibly this week.

Since the appointment of new Health Secretary Sajid Javid, much has been made of his overflowing in-tray of a pandemic, NHS waiting list and social care issues, but where does life sciences fit into this? Importantly, England will soon have a new NHS CEO too – Javid is not the only new leader that matters to the industry.

The new Life Science Vision will set out the Government’s plan to make the UK a life sciences superpower and will prioritise efforts in several key areas of health and scientific development including genomics. It is expected to include a clear role for the NHS in achieving this ambition – for greater involvement in research and for an NHS which enthusiastically and fully uses new treatments and technologies. The Government has privately expressed frustration that the NHS is not pro-innovation enough and wants a change in mindset and behaviour right through to the NHS grassroots.

The Vision is an important and positive step, restating the sector as a key priority for this Government. It is also positive that some parts of Government recognise the connected nature of the UK life science ecosystem – in which the Government wants to attract industry investment in research and manufacturing to the UK and, to maximise this, is also seeking to address some of the NHS actions on access and use of treatments which are a drag anchor on investor sentiment and restrict the ability to run late-stage research trials.

Nevertheless, for industry, a pro-innovation NHS is not just about the fuller usage of new therapies and technologies after NICE approval. It is also about NICE expanding its recommendations for NHS medicines to cover the same numbers of patients as gain access in many other European countries, and about the NHS and NHS England not adding extra and unnecessary price negotiations for NICE approved medicines. Under the current cost-capping medicines deal between the Government and industry, reducing the cost of a medicine or limiting the number of eligible patients does not save the taxpayer a penny; it just reduces the amount the industry pays into the scheme. Improvements have been made in the past but DHSC and NHS England have been reluctant to act on these points recently.

The question is whether and how the innovation and research ambitions for the NHS will be realised.

The Life Science Vision is a cross-Government initiative inspired by the Prime Minister. But for the Government to achieve its ambitions there must be genuine buy-in and commitment from the DHSC. If it is not owned by DHSC and, through it, by NHS England then the pro-innovation element will flounder. The Vision is currently led by BEIS but is expected to announce that the new NHS CEO will be given objectives on innovation and research.

The Life Science Vision is a great opportunity to realise the potential of industry’s contribution to science and the economic recovery, to restoring the NHS, and to improving health outcomes for patients.

The new Health Secretary’s time in Treasury and at BEIS means he brings some positive perspectives on the scientific and economic contribution of life sciences. But a key question is whether Javid sees life sciences as a real priority in his new role and is prepared to use powers that DHSC plans to take in the new Health Bill to implement change. To date, NHS England has seen the NHS Mandate as a soft tool with limited accountability. And with NHS leaders focused on the pandemic and NHS recovery, clear ‘must do’ targets, rather than softer ‘nice to do’ aspirations will be needed if the innovation and research agenda is not to be left unimplemented.

The Government’s choice of new NHS CEO is also important, and their relationship with the industry.

Current NHS England and Improvement COO Amanda Pritchard has been the front runner for a year or more and looks most likely to take the position. A former NHS Trust CEO who is liked and respected within NHS England and the wider service, she is a continuity candidate for the NHS. Continuity means there are also some concerns among industry that she would continue the tough commercial behaviours of NHSE under Sir Simon Stevens.

If the Sunday papers and Westminster gossipers are to be believed, there may also be a change of DHSC life sciences minister in the upcoming reshuffle.

It seems likely that the Government will continue with its position of wanting the UK to be a life science superpower in research, manufacturing, and the use of therapies, but – crucially – also wanting to squeeze hard to get the lowest prices.

The Life Science Vision is a great opportunity to realise the potential of industry’s contribution to science and the economic recovery, to restoring the NHS, and to improving health outcomes for patients. With new leaders in Government and the NHS, the industry needs to work with Government to ensure the Vision is fully implemented, and to ensure these new leaders and others recognise that negative NHS practices undermine their Vision and ambitions by weakening the attractiveness of the UK as a place to invest.