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Life sciences and NHS feature in Johnson speech – but Brexit promises predominate

GSK leader warns again on no-deal

Boris J

Boris Johnson took over as the UK’s new Prime Minister yesterday, and began his work by sacking most of his predecessor’s ministers and appointing a new strongly pro-Brexit cabinet.

There are now just 98 days left until the UK is due to leave the European Union on 31 0ctober, and Mr Johnson is determined to meet this deadline, apparently by negotiating a new withdrawal agreement, even though EU leaders say this is an impossibility.

However Johnson, a deeply divisive figure in the Conservative party and the country as a whole, has left open the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, and yesterday said this would only happen if the EU refused to reopen talks.

This Brexit ‘do or die’ resolve was Johnson’s overwhelming motif outside 10 Downing Street yesterday afternoon, but his first speech as PM also included a wide range of eyecatching policy pledges, including for the NHS and social care.

Over the many weeks of the Conservative party leadership contest, neither Johnson nor the now-defeated Jeremy Hunt addressed the question of the UK’s social care crisis, an issue for which successive governments – including Theresa May’s – have repeatedly delayed legislation.

However yesterday the new PM promised to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all, with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve.”

This was just one of a flurry of policy ideas which sounded not unlike a manifesto for a general election – something which many commentators believe Johnson may well gamble on to break the Parliamentary deadlock which has blocked Brexit.

He was also careful to put life sciences first in a list of exciting, hi-tech industries which the UK leads on, saying: “It is here in Britain that we are using gene therapy, for the first time, to treat the most common form of blindness.”

This was an apparent reference to Gyroscope, the company based in the Stevenage biotech cluster near London, which is testing its gene therapy for advanced dry Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD).

Johnson also called for changes to the UK tax rules to “provide extra incentives to invest in capital and research” something which the country would have extra leeway on if it is completely outside the EU.

This long list of policy ideas would also bring with them billions in extra spending from the Exchequer, something which the now ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond had refused under a tight fiscal policy.

His successor Sajid Javid has signalled his willingness to loosen spending rules, but Brexit and an uncertain global economic outlook will nevertheless narrow his options considerably.

Against this background, the NHS and life sciences sector will be heartened by its prominence in Johnson’s inaugural address – but both will press for more concrete actions to back up the promises.

Mike Thompson, chief executive of the ABPI offered his congratulations to the new prime minister, and noted that he had been a ‘strong champion’ of life sciences in his former role as mayor of London.

Above all, however, the UK pharma and biotech sectors wants to see a no-deal Brexit avoided – but that is one promise that the new PM is not prepared to make.

The sector is once again preparing itself for the special measures needed in the even of a no-deal exit, in which imports of medicines would be given number one priority. Nevertheless the industry fears that no amount of preparation would guarantee no shortages or delays to drug supplies.

GSK is one of the UK's two big pharma companies (alongside AZ) and during its Q2 results conference call yesterday, chief executive Emma Walmsley warned once more against a no-deal.

"We've been consistent in the view that no deal would be a bad outcome, mainly because it moves us further away from what we want to see, which is deep regulatory and scientific co-operation between the UK and EU," she said.

"So we'd like to see an agreement as soon as possible," she said, adding that tax incentives and investments in R&D were also important to the UK sector.

Johnson’s call for a new Brexit deal before the end of October was met with swift rebuttals from EU leaders. Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and several EU leaders openly challenged the new UK prime minister to put forward specific ideas about how to overcome his objections to the contentious Irish backstop.

"Confidence and enthusiasm are no substitute for a comprehensive EU policy," Varadkar warned, saying Johnson’s comments were "not in the real world" and a new Brexit deal was "not going to happen".

As part of his swingeing cabinet reshuffle, Johnson has dismissed the numerous ‘Remainer’ ministers, including Greg Clark, business secretary, replacing him with Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom.

One of the few ministers to remain in place is health secretary Matt Hancock, who NHS and social care leaders will now look to for details on the promised investments.

Article by
Andrew McConaghie

25th July 2019

From: Healthcare

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