Making health make us – not break us: Life Sciences and Brexit

by Paul Pambankian

Following the Brexit vote, it is now more than likely that there will be a new Secretary of State for Health come October.  Had the Prime Minister stayed in post, he may have relied on the support of his pro-European Health Secretary, but a new Prime Minister will now likely appoint an entirely new cabinet.  Throughout his time as the longest serving Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt has aimed to be the ‘patient champion’ within the system; focusing relentlessly on patient safety, and big challenges such as Dementia care and delivering a paperless NHS.

Mr Hunt has not, however, focused on Life Sciences.  He has steered clear of the issue, deputising this responsibility to his energetic Life Sciences Minister, George Freeman.  As such, the appointment of a new Health Secretary offers the opportunity to raise the profile of a £60 billion industry, which is the UK’s second biggest exporter and accounts for over 220,000 jobs.

When considering new personnel around the cabinet table, one should not forget that a new chancellor in Number 11 Downing Street will play a significant role in the fast-approaching Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme negotiations.  It will be absolutely vital for the industry to position itself to the Treasury and the Department of Business Innovation and Skills as a potential engine for growth, and not as an easy target for ‘efficiency savings’.

However, despite these opportunities, Brexit poses a number of threats and challenges to the UK life sciences industry:

  • Research funding – While some countries, such as Switzerland and Norway, buy into the EU science programmes from outside of the EU, there is no guarantee that the UK can do this, and it is unlikely to cost less than it did as full EU members. The UK is currently the second largest beneficiary of EU research funding through the Horizon 2020 programme, securing 15.4 per cent of the funding.  Clearly securing future access to such research will be a challenge that must be met by the new Government
  • Attracting key personnel The free movement of people within the European Union makes it very easy for academics, scientists and researchers to move to the UK, helping to create a flourishing research community. Cancelling free movement for scientists has the potential to make it overly burdensome to move to the UK, potentially detracting from the talent the UK can attract
  • The falling £ While the falling value of the pound may be good for exports, which should not be overlooked, many companies operating in the sector are global, and as such report in to global headquarters in dollars. The falling value of the pound therefore makes individual companies less profitable to global HQs
  • Cost of trade barriers – Additional costs associated with any trade barriers placed on the UK would also impact on business profitability and prospects for long term investment. These may well be offset by a future trade deal between the EU and the UK, but the exact parameters of, and prospects for, such a deal remain hotly contested
  • EMA moving on? – The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is currently physically based in Canary Wharf, emphasising that the UK is a good place for life science companies to operate from. Should the EMA choose to relocate to another European hub, which would hardly be a surprise, the UK’s life science industry may suffer in turn
  • Input to science policy – Increasingly, issues about life sciences policy are being decided upon at a European level, ranging from legislation about clinical trials to patient data. The UK will no longer have 73 MEPs to influence these decisions, and may still have to abide by some of the laws established.  While the UK’s influence will wane, the life sciences sector, often global in nature, has the opportunity to lobby for the UK at this level, engaging with EU officials and politicians from the 27 remaining nations


A new Secretary of State for Health, allied with her or his counter-parts at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury, has the opportunity to work with a powerful, creative and profitable UK industry.  However, Brexit will present a number of challenges that will need to be tackled head on over the coming weeks and months to ensure that the industry, in the words of the current Life Sciences Minister, helps to “make health make us, not break us”.