17 Dec 2019

Next year, in 2020, the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy will be three years old, developed for a previous government in a previous decade.

The LSIS has moved life sciences forward in the UK, but Boris Johnson’s new Government is unlikely to think that an exciting post-Brexit vision for the future of this industry can be found in a document published by Theresa May’s government in 2017.

A new era needs a new vision for life sciences in the UK.

The questions remains the same: how can the UK continue to improve its position in the highly competitive environment of global life sciences? How can the UK be a destination for research investment for the discovery and development of new treatments? How can the NHS be a place where all eligible patients can benefit from the latest medicines, technologies, and treatments quickly after launch (whilst maintaining NICE and other safety and quality hurdles)?

Some of the answers may be the same. Some may be different. Many parts of the LSIS have not been implemented, including some publicly committed to by government. Some arguments may need to be won all over again.

The industry as a whole has consistently called for a close alignment with the EU post-Brexit. In 2017, the Health and Business Secretaries wrote a letter in the FT envisioning a close and collaborative relationship for life sciences with the EU post-Brexit. But the ministers who gave these reassurances are no longer in Government.

The life sciences industry is one of the pillars of a strong NHS and a strong UK economy.

The industry should restate its case. And it should assert these in positive terms, in keeping with a Government seeking a positive vision for the country post-Brexit.

First, we are in an age of pioneering science and breakthrough therapies – improving patient outcomes in existing treatment areas and providing first-ever treatments in other diseases where patient need has been unmet. Over recent decades, the industry has played a vital role in improving quality of life and life expectancy for millions of people in the UK.

The potential of future treatments to bring benefits for patients, efficiencies in our health system, and productivity in our economy, should be embraced.

Second, the industry is the single largest R&D investor in the UK, with pharmaceuticals alone bringing £4.3bn to the country in 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics. And each of the high-value jobs that the industry creates brings additional benefits for the economy.

This is a success story, but the UK should not rest on its laurels in today’s globally competitive environment. New measures to encourage investment, facilitate university and science community partnerships, and bring more clinical trials to the NHS should be explored. The Government wishes to shift the economy from a reliance on financial services to other sectors. There should be no question that a successful life sciences sector is necessary for a strong UK economy.

Industry should consider how it can support the Government in building economic renewal in the north and other areas. Can our world-beating ‘golden triangle’ of life sciences (between Oxford, Cambridge, and London) be extended to spread this science cluster and its wealth creation to other regions? The Northern Health Science Alliance is an example of an existing platform to help this, and more is possible.

Government should also recognise the connection between investment and the use of new treatments in the NHS. It is common sense that global companies will be more likely to spend money developing treatments in a country that uses those treatments quickly and fully after licensing.

Finally, if the life sciences industry is to be taken seriously and become a genuine partner to Government and the NHS, then the sector and pharmaceuticals in particular needs to reflect on its reputation. How has it become possible for the wildest allegations against it to be believed and gain traction? This election campaign should be a wake-up call.  The industry has a hugely positive story to tell but has not told it confidently or widely enough.

For example, pharmaceuticals are often criticised on price, yet few outside the sector understand that for the past six years the industry as a whole (including American companies) has voluntarily agreed a deal that caps the amount the NHS spends on medicines – so that when a new treatment comes to the UK it can be made available to patients without costing the NHS or the taxpayer a penny more. And last year the industry signed up to renew this deal for another five years.

The life sciences industry is one of the pillars of a strong NHS and a strong UK economy. It is time to make the case again.