By Dr Cat Ball, Policy Manager, AMRC

Published: 29 March 2018

If a week is a long time in politics then a year is practically a lifetime.

Today, 29 March, is a year since the UK activated Article 50. Or, leaving the legal jargon aside, it’s a year since the UK kicked off the two-year countdown process to leave the EU.

We’ve had phase 1 – ‘the divorce’ – and we’re about to enter phase 2 – ‘the new relationship’. And while at times it may have felt like we were progressing with glacial speed, from my vantage point there have been a number of key developments that are important to the medical research community.

The anniversary (no need to buy a card!) provides a good opportunity to look back at the progress that’s been made towards ensuring that the UK’s new relationship with the EU protects medical research and patients.  We want that relationship to mean that patients can continue to participate in vital pan-EU clinical trials; have speedy access to new medical innovations; and experience no disruption in the supply of medicines and treatments. AMRC’s position statement on exiting the EU sets this out in full.

Expanding the evidence base

When the UK first voted to leave the EU, we knew that the partnership between the UK and the EU was vital for medical research and patients but we didn’t have a complete evidence base to underpin our position.

In May, a report led by Cancer Research UK and funded by a range of medical research organisations including AMRC, was published that sought to address the evidence gap. The Impact of Collaboration: The Value of UK medical research to EU science and heath, explored key areas where the UK provides value to the EU. It uncovered key stats including that the UK undertakes the highest number of phase I trials – those testing a new drug or treatment for the first time – in the EU and the second highest number of phase II and III trials after Germany. Bibliometric analysis of EU medical and health research publications also found that collaboration with the UK greatly increases the impact of EU26 publications, and vice versa.

This expanded evidence base has proved useful. Over the past year it’s seemed that no self-respecting parliamentary committee can resist the lure of a Brexit-related inquiry. The Commons and Lords S&T Committees, Health Committee and Scottish Parliament Health and Sport Committee all had specific focuses on medical research and Brexit. AMRC gave oral evidence to both the Health Committee (December) and the Scottish Parliament Health and Sport Committee (March) as well as representing the sector at the Commons S&T Committee’s  Brexit science and innovation summit (February). At each we called for there to be no negative impact on patients and communicated the priorities of the sector that must be addressed in negotiations as a result.   

Forming alliances and cross-border coalitions

The Brexit Health Alliance has evolved over the course of the past year to become an influential voice speaking up for health and research. Sitting alongside industry, patient organisations and NHS groups, AMRC represents the medical research charity sector on the Alliance. The group has developed a number of key briefings for UK and EU stakeholders, communicating priorities for the sector. Campaigns on reciprocal healthcare, patient access to medicines and medical research were published and received media coverage ranging from the Guardian to the Daily Mail. In March, Labour’s Health Minister Jonathan Ashworth referenced the Brexit Health Alliance and quoted from the group’s briefings in a key speech he gave in Brussels.

Another group we were involved with reached across the channel too. Earlier this month, we co-ordinated a group of eleven organisations that represent patients across the UK and the EU and sent a joint letter to Brexit negotiators calling for patient safety and access to medicines to be at the heart of the second phase of negotiations. This followed a joint letter from UK and EU industry trade bodies published in July last year calling on Brexit negotiators to secure future EU-UK partnership on the regulation of medicines.

Government taking note

As the countdown clock continued to tick on towards the UK’s exit from the EU, there were a number of welcome signs from Government that they had heard our message.

In July, Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark, the Secretaries of State for Health and Social Care and Business Energy and Industrial Strategy respectively, wrote a joint article in the FT outlining that the UK wants to continue to work with the EU on medicines.

Amidst a slew of Government future partnership papers in August and September, a paper focusing on science and innovation was published. While light on detail, the paper spoke in positive terms about the UK’s objectives for an ambitious science and innovation agreement with the EU. The sector welcomed this paper as vital recognition of the importance of the science and research dimension within the UK’s new relationship with the EU.

The warm words and positive publications from cabinet ministers and departments have been spearheaded by Theresa May herself. At the beginning of March the most recent of the PM’s series of Brexit speeches (not available as a box-set) outlined the UK’s commitment to a “far-reaching science and innovation pact” that enables the exchange of researchers and ideas. She also indicated that the UK wants to explore how we could remain part of the European Medicines Agency in negotiations.

Reaching beyond the buzz-words: Leadership from the sector

Over the course of the past year it’s fair to say that the Government’s views on UK-EU collaboration on science and research have been hot on buzz words and cold on actual detail. We know that David Davis is tasked with securing a ‘deep and meaningful’ future relationship, but what does that look like?

In December, Wellcome kicked off a project to answer that very question for science and research. Working with the Royal Society, the Future Partnerships Project explored perspectives from the UK and the EU to develop a shared vision for an ambitious, close and achievable future agreement on research and innovation. Wellcome subsequently published a series of recommendations, including that a stand-alone agreement for research and innovation be developed.

Where next? The year ahead

To truly to be able to tell where next, we’d need to use a crystal ball. However, we can make some guesses. We know that October 2018 is the EU’s target for an agreed withdrawal treaty. If that goes to plan then the EU and UK parliaments must ratify this around January 2019 so that it’s completed in time. And of course, the Brexit moment will come at midnight Brussels-time on 29 March 2019.

Though we can’t predict the future, we know that AMRC and the sector will do all we can in the coming year to ensure that there is no negative impact on patients as a result of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. We will continue to put patients first.