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Flying the flag

Senior UK government ministers have been proactive in visiting companies in the US and Japan to encourage investment and explain progress

Richard Barker There is nothing more important than visiting your key customers. For the pharma industry, one such customer is government. But, in these times of global investment restructuring, the reverse is also true. Governments need to visit the industry decision makers that are shaping their future networks for R&D and manufacturing.

This is exactly what the UK government has been doing – visiting the headquarters of those companies that are either heavily invested in the UK or would consider future investments. Personally I think that is a wise decision, and could not be more timely.

Secretary of State level missions have been to the US and Japan so far. Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, and Peter Mandelson from Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) both went to the US, but only Johnson went to Japan because urgent parliamentary business detained Lord Mandelson.

In both cases, they were accompanied by senior officials from the Department of Health's (DH) medicines branch and R&D group, who put forward a case for the UK and described major changes that the government believes will make the UK a more attractive destination for investment. Sir Michael Rawlins from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) was also part of the delegation to answer the frequent and pointed questions about NICE's role – past, present and future.

I joined the Japanese visits, and received feedback from the US, so can report that both tours were effective.

Encouraging investment
Felicity Harvey, head of the medicines branch at the DH, described the UK's market changes, including the innovation package from the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS) and the Darzi changes to encourage NHS innovation. She also discussed the new flexible pricing and patient access schemes under the 2009 PPRS, and spoke of a broader deal designed to encourage the uptake of innovation. Government and the DH now fully appreciated the relatively poor position that the UK has on this dimension, she said. After the audiences the delegation was left with little doubt that changing this position is key to making the UK more attractive as a place to do business, including R&D.

Sally Davies and Louise Wood from the DH R&D group talked enthusiastically about the improved infrastructure for clinical trials – networks and tools – and the new challenge in the NHS operating framework to double the number of patients in clinical trials. They heard about the need to reduce costs and speed up recruitment if the UK is to regain its position.

Understanding NICE
The discussions on NICE were important. The US executives were concerned about the potential for the 'cost-effectiveness' movement to spread to the world's largest pharmaceutical market, and the Japanese saw NICE and its approach as sending mixed signals on innovation. Both groups were glad to hear of the intention to look again at how NICE values innovation. This will be a centrally important debate for the industry over the next few months, and I am sure I will not be alone in writing more on it.

The new Office of Life Sciences (OLS), under Lord Drayson, was presented as an important new sign of the government's determination to make further changes, and to accelerate those that have already started.

The Japanese, in particular, were pleasantly surprised. They frequently commented that they could not imagine their own senior health minister visiting Britain to urge British companies to invest more in Japan, so the symbolism of the visit alone was important. Alan Johnson said each time, after his colleagues had presented the changes started, that he was there to hear what the UK could do more of, or differently, to attract investment for the future. He said that now the tough PPRS negotiations were over, we could look forward to five years of stability – so how could we rebuild confidence and the role of the UK in the global industry?

There really is a sense that life sciences is one of the priority sectors this government wants to see strengthen, not weaken, through the recession. These visits are a welcomed signal of this, and will be followed by a more professional life sciences marketing strategy, being shaped under Chris Brinsmead, as chair of the UK Trade and Investment Marketing Board. The UK industry, however, will need to hold government to its word, show it what counts the most, and talk up the UK with our global colleagues.

2009 could be the tipping point for the UK industry – let's make sure it tips upwards!

The Author
Dr Richard Barker is director general of The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry
To comment on this article, email pm@pmlive.com

15th April 2009

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