A new direction for life sciences and health in the UK

By Philippa Brice

7 August 2016


The last few weeks have seen enormous political upheaval. First, the EU referendum, and majority support for the BREXIT option, widely seen as a major blow both for UK science, which benefits enormously from EU funding arrangements, and for the National Health Service (NHS), relying -as it does so heavily on staff from outside the UK.

Next, Theresa May succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister, bringing immediate changes to many elements of government, individual and organisational. Whilst stating her support for UK science early on, the Prime Minister has said little on the NHS, but the shape of things to come is starting to emerge.

Old hands and new brooms at the Department of Health

In mid-July Philip Dunne was announced as the new Minister of State for Health, with responsibilities that include hospital care, NHS performance and operations, the workforce, patient safety and maternity care. Jeremy Hunt retained his Cabinet role as Health Secretary, with overall ‘financial control and oversight of all NHS delivery and performance’ as well as special responsibility for mental health and patient safety (again), as well as ‘driving forward the Prime Minister’s agenda’, whatever that may prove to be.

Further new ministers at the Department of Health were announced the following week. Nicola Blackwood, as the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Public Health and Innovation, has responsibility for technology, life sciences, innovation and data, public health and health protection. David Mowat is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Community Health and Care, whose remit includes social care, primary care, cancer and dementia. Lord Prior, previously Minister for NHS Productivity, remained at the Department of Health as the Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State for Health, with a lengthy brief including leading on drugs spending, the life sciences industry, NHS and EU affairs, NHS commercial issues, and blood and transplants.

The fate of life sciences

These appointments suggested that the role of Minister for Life Sciences had been lost, but it was not clear what would become of the accompanying Office for Life Sciences (OLS) which, like the Minister, sat at the crucial intersection between the former department of Business, Skills and Innovation (now the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) and the Department of Health.

Now it has been confirmed the OLS remains, but with the Ministerial role seemingly split between three people. Nicola Blackwood is to lead on genomics, data and digital health and emerging health technologies, and Lord Prior on the Department of Health’s life science industrial strategy, the Accelerated Access Review and the life sciences industry, as well as EU matters. Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities and Science, will be responsible for the BEIS life science industrial strategy.

The life sciences legacy

The desire to make the most of the NHS, not only as a vital health service but also as a crucial test-bed for innovations in healthcare and a massive biomedical research resource led to the excellent decision to establish both a ministerial post and a ‘re-launched’ OLS as cross departmental initiatives that would create a bridge between the departments tasked with delivering these objectives.

During his short tenure as Minister for Life Sciences George Freeman presided over two important new initiatives, the Early Access to Medicines Scheme (EAMS) and the Accelerated Access Review, the final recommendations of which are likely to be released soon. Both seek to make science work more effectively for health (and for patients) as well as industry, although the latter may fall far short of what it could achieve; only time will tell.

It is possible for the NHS to serve both the health and wealth agendas of the country simultaneously, but it is no easy task, especially with the need for broad public support to make it truly successful; the British public is generally enthusiastic about the NHS, but sometimes highly suspicious of some commercial concerns, such as big pharmaceutical companies. So perhaps keeping some distance between the different aspects of the life sciences brief i.e. industrial strategy vs health service based research and implementation, whilst sharing space at the OLS, makes some sense. However, there is a clear danger that if the three ministers charged with different aspects of the application of life sciences for health fail to work closely and to a shared strategy, the added value of the OLS could quickly be lost.

This is particularly the case from the industrial strategy perspective, where it remains to be seen whether hiving off the ‘biomedical’ part of life sciences industrial policy to DH and retaining the remainder within BIS is effective, particularly for those companies (including genomics providers) who work in both medical and non-medical sectors. This is before one even considers the additional complication of UKTI (formerly an agency within BIS) becoming a standalone Department for International Trade, presumably with its own independent policy agenda around BREXIT that may have a significant impact on the UK life sciences industry.

At the end of the day, wherever the funding and policy for developing and implementing life science innovations comes from, UK citizens deserve to benefit from them at the earliest possible opportunity, and UK PLC should be able to profit from them. Indeed, with the NHS facing a sustainability crisis, the risks of recession raised by BREXIT-linked uncertainties, and a new imperative to attract global investment, it is more important than ever before. Let’s hope the new ministerial team can make this work.

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