Business as usual: the Labour Party launches its Life Sciences Plan

5 Feb 2024, 08:30

By Jamie Holyer, Senior Adviser - Healthcare

The launch last week of the Labour Party Life Sciences Plan received a warm welcome by numerous leading UK healthcare stakeholder institutions from The King’s Fund to the ABPI and LifeArc, to name but a few. And that is hardly surprising given it contains a raft of sensible proposals that seek to amplify existing Life Science strategies, albeit with a few headline grabbing commitments around increasing investment targets in research and the creation of a ‘Regulatory Innovation Office’.

The Labour strategy of more of the same but better is also not unsurprising because, and whisper it quietly, the Conservative Government has done a pretty decent job in recent years of utilising science and financial institutions to attract inward investment into the UK. Sure, there have been some considerable problems for the sector, notably the fallout from Brexit leading to a rapid drop-off in clinical trials in the National Health Service (NHS), a regulator struggling to cope with demand as expertise left in droves, and Brexit itself raising a broader question of the status of the UK as a tier one market for global pharma. Nevertheless, the sector feels buoyant overall with Britain leading Europe in investment, licensing of innovation, and M&A deals.

What then perhaps is of more significance, and no doubt the plan behind the plan, is that the Strategy is a further demonstration of Labour’s readiness for Government. It was not that long ago that the Labour Party was publishing plans around the compulsory licensing of pharmaceuticals.

However, the entire point of the life sciences industry is to treat serious unmet medical need with innovation in healthcare systems. And this is where both Labour and Conservative plans fall short: without a comprehensive refinancing of the NHS, patient access to innovation in the UK is increasingly coming at either the expense of industry, with significant pressure on pricing, or patient communities, subject to ever extending waiting lists.

Like all western economies, demand for NHS services and the ability to treat disease with innovation is outstripping available resources by some margin due to ageing demographics and the ability to treat previously untreatable diseases. In response to this challenge, UK Ministers, through successive administrations, have pursued an unwritten trade-off model of encouraging the private sector to do its research within the NHS and in partnership with our institutions, that allows NHS England to then secure low prices with manufacturers or risk a blame game being played out in public with patients subject to unimaginable distress.

Whilst there is a strong rationale for the Labour Party to play it safe with their Life Sciences Strategy, what is actually needed is a national debate on what as a society what we are prepared to pay for via taxation or another model for innovation in the NHS. Sadly, due to expectations on politicians to provide solutions to intractable problems, and the NHS as famously as close to a national religion as we are ever going to get, a practical and ethical debate on access to innovation in the UK is a distant prospect.