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Brexit: can pharma 'take back control' of the narrative?

Four Public Affairs managing director Sarah Jones talks to PME about the risks of Brexit - and how the sector musn't let the long-term issues become obscured

Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones, managing director of Four Public Affairs

1. As the clock ticks down to Brexit on 29 March 2019, what impact is Brexit having on the life sciences sector?

Our clients and contacts tell us that Brexit continues to present significant uncertainty for the life sciences industry, with time running out for companies to be able to implement the necessary changes in line with any final deal agreed (should a deal even be agreed in time).  

As such, many companies have been planning for a hard Brexit, taking steps to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to avoid any disruption to patient access to medicines. Reports of companies stockpiling medicines have become commonplace, and some businesses are also increasing their UK-based resources to deal with any changes to customs or regulatory processes.  

These business continuity plans come at an addition to the usual cost of doing business in the UK, therefore damaging the attractiveness of the market.

For this reason, as the clock ticks down, the sector urgently needs greater clarification across the five broad areas that have been identified by the ABPI and BIA: access to R&D funding and the ability to continue collaborating in clinical research; capability to trade and the free movement of goods across borders; maintaining a common regulatory framework with Europe; free movement of talented people; and maintaining protection for the intellectual property framework.

However, in reality the full extent of the impact of Brexit for the life sciences sector is likely to only really become clear in the years after it has taken place.

2. One issue that gets overlooked amid all the politics and technical preparations for a No Deal scenario is People, staffing and skills in a post-Brexit environment. What risks does the sector face, and what can be done to mitigate those?

The UK has traditionally been an attractive destination for highly skilled workers in science and research, with large pharmaceutical companies also benefitting from knowledge sharing made possible through EU staff being able to easily transfer to their UK affiliates. Nonetheless despite this, the ABPI has long-highlighted the need to bridge the skills gaps within the UK pharmaceutical industry, warning that “if the UK is to retain and grow its world-leading life sciences status, it is crucial to develop a strategic approach in developing a skills pipeline for the entire Life Sciences sector”.  

Taking this into account, the potential impact on people, staffing and skills in the UK post-Brexit, should perhaps be given greater air time than it currently receives, with the focus instead often on future regulatory arrangements. Industry therefore needs to ensure that the Government fully understands both the need for continued access to the skills it requires, as it finalises its post-Brexit approach to immigration, as well as providing support for collaboration between industry and academia to further develop the UK science base as a whole.

In addition, the sector should also be concerned about the impact of Brexit on hospitals across the UK, with a number of them heavily dependent on EU nationals for frontline staff.  63,000 NHS staff in England are EU nationals - 5.6% of all staff – and a recent Bureau of Investigative Journalism report found that at eight NHS trusts they make up more than 20% of doctors or nurses, and in 92 trusts, more than 10% of doctors or nurses are from the EU.  

Senior figures at NHS Employers have made it clear that Brexit is already having an impact on the recruitment and retention of EU nationals, with the subsequent difficulties in filling posts expected to impact on waiting times, operating theatre capacity and beds.

In addition, NHS staffing costs could go up if there has to be a reliance on expensive agency staff to fill vacancies previously taken by EU nationals. All of this means that the NHS could become increasingly distracted by financial and staffing challenges, and unable to focus on transforming care and driving up patient outcomes.  

3. There is a lot of concern that Brexit is obscuring many other important issues for the sector. Is there any way the life sciences sector can take control of the narrative, and make sure that its priorities, and its positive contributions aren't overlooked?

Whilst Brexit has undoubtedly shone a spotlight on the value of the life science sector’s contribution to British jobs, growth and the population’s health, the Government’s recognition of, the industry over the past few years has not necessarily been converted into action on some of the most pressing challenges facing companies in the UK. 

This is not necessarily due to Brexit obscuring these wider and pre-existing issues, but perhaps more of a failure or unwillingness to see the whole picture, consider the accumulative effect on investor confidence, and deliver a joined up approach.

For example the sector has continued to see UK patients gaining slower and lower access to innovative medicines than other EU countries. This has damaged the attractiveness of the UK as a location for investment and clinical development activities. Another example is the recent consultation on the Statutory Scheme for branded medicines, which seems to directly contradict Government reassurances the sector has received about its importance post-Brexit. It sets a very concerning tone for the PPRS negotiations and underestimates the positive impact of R&D investment.

All of these issues are made worse by the uncertainty caused by Brexit and the increasing cost burden of preparing for 29 March 2019 (e.g. stockpiling), meaning that the UK environment for life sciences needs to be considered as a whole – tinkering at one end of the medicines pathway will not achieve what is needed to secure the UK’s ongoing place as a global leader.

For the sector to take control of the narrative, it needs to continue to make the case that all the issues it faces are interlinked and work together to convey the important message that as well as the technical arrangements for a post-Brexit future, a number of other factors are affecting local market conditions and causing significant concern.

It also needs to better quantify the value of all of its investment in the UK, including any additional support services provided for patients.  Most importantly, however, the Government needs to understand the need for a coherent and consistent approach at their end, one that gives UK General Managers good news to report back to their global bosses.

Sarah Jones is managing director of Four Public Affairs. She is part of an expert panel speaking at the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) meeting in London on Brexit’s Impact on the Life Sciences Industry on Thursday 8 November.

Article by
Sarah Jones

1st November 2018

Article by
Sarah Jones

1st November 2018

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