Science and Health under the Brexit government

By Stefano Gortana

16 November 2016


Back in August, I expressed concern regarding the consequences of Brexit for UK health and science. Acknowledging the intimate links between the UK and the EU specifically in research and funding, I concluded that "so far, it doesn’t look good" for UK health and science. Despite a few developments, the prospects have not significantly improved.

No hand-outs from Number 10

Unfortunately Theresa May has reiterated that the NHS will receive no extra money in the upcoming Autumn Statement. Rather than seeking more than the ‘ £10bn extra’ previously committed, she suggested the NHS focus on making the efficiency savings necessary to cover the £22bn funding gap. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt echoed these sentiments more recently, telling the Health Committee that these efficiency savings can be made without rationing services or negatively impacting patient care. He added that if necessary, his department is willing to intervene to avoid the latter.

Chair of the Health Committee, Dr. Sarah Wollaston, has since written a letter to the Chancellor stressing the inaccuracy of the £10bn figure and the dangers of further cuts to social care. Chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens similarly highlighted that, while 2016/17 will see an injection of previously committed funds to kick start improvements, funding per person in England will fall in 2018/19 with only a 1.3% budget increase. Moving into the later years of this parliament, UK health and science will be working with less.

Encouraging words – but little else?

In anticipation of the Autumn Statement, Chancellor Hammond met with representatives of some of Britain’s world-leading innovative industries. Discussions touched on "the great potential of…AI, bio-tech, med-tech, robotics and virtual reality", with Hammond acknowledging the importance of the UK’s "superb research and development sector already contributing more than £30bn to the UK economy". Such attention and recognition of world-leading sectors of the British economy are certainly welcome but do not equal commitment.

Similarly, the new Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board, George Freeman, provided some reassuring words on the elusive industrial strategy: "Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership". Alluding to the life sciences and biotech industries as examples of where the government might step in is also welcome, but has not yet translated into tangible support. In fact, the Secretary of State for International Trade has even stated in parliament that he disagrees with life sciences leaders that the UK must be part of the Europe-wide regulatory system, which would presumably complicate the UK’s global leadership in this sector.

Positive developments for UK science

Since the referendum, the government has taken steps to convey a sense of business as usual and health and science are no exception. Most encouragingly, the government has committed £100 million to fund the Biomedical Catalyst in this parliament and an additional £120mn to fund companies researching AI and nanotechnology. It has launched the NHS Innovation and Technology Tariff, designed to increase uptake and accessibility of medical innovations, and has continued with plans to set-up a consultative forum that will include representatives of UK research and innovation and focus on discussing opportunities and issues arising from the UK’s exit from the EU. The government is even considering hiring a Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for Exiting the EU.

The Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson was similarly encouraging when he reiterated that the Treasury "would be good for any commitments and payments due to UK researchers and institutions that might fall due after the point of Brexit". He has guaranteed EU students’ ability to access the student loan book for this academic year and the next, and acknowledged that the government is prepared to consider that the UK should be hosting international science facilities, given the economic ecosystems they create, with a deregulatory mindset committed to continuing to reduce red tape and drive down taxes. Johnson concluded that in his various ministerial roles and in collaboration with various government departments and members of the scientific communities, "we continue to work together to try to ensure that the science and research community’s voice and interests are properly represented in the government’s overview and understanding of where our national interest lies in these negotiations". It is therefore difficult to argue that UK health and science have been ignored by the current government.

Still too early to expect more

It is clear that the government was ill-prepared for the referendum result and consequently details of the Brexit plan have been slow to materialise.

For example, the industrial strategy is still in early stages. As Jo Johnson recently told the Select Committee on Science and Technology, "this government are developing their vision for industrial strategy…we are in the process now of trying to think very carefully about what a modern industrial strategy needs to be". A policy paper will subsequently emerge, followed by a "more considered response from government in…2017".

Meanwhile, Brexit has left EU nationals anxious. Given the crucial role of EU nationals to NHS staffing and scientific research alone, fear of mass deportations may be unfounded - such a policy would be toxic. Yet Theresa May has still not guaranteed the rights of EU nationals to work in the UK, ostensibly holding out for the EU to extend reciprocal rights to UK nationals. However the repeated ‘Hard Brexit’ rhetoric and the emphasis on severely restricting the flow of immigration continues to fuel concerns.

It will still be some time before anyone, including the UK health and science communities, has a clearer understanding of the post-Brexit landscape. As the pound reaches new lows, we can only hope the Autumn Statement offers some reassurance that science and health  - areas that surely underpin the future success of the nation -  will remain a priority for this Government.

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