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What does Boris mean for biotech?

31 Jul 2019

Dr Martin Turner, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the BioIndustry Association, looks at what the new government could mean for the sector. 

Our new Prime Minister has now been in Number 10 for six days and his government has quickly taken shape. Commentators have been shocked by the “brutal” shake-up of the Cabinet as Boris Johnson has sought to build a team that is 100% committed to his agenda. That agenda is characterised by Brexit, but beyond that, there are positive signs that Boris will be backing biotech. 

In his opening speech, he praised the UK’s “extraordinary bioscience sector” and highlighted the life sciences and academia as strengths of the economy. He mentioned a new gene therapy to treat the most common form of blindness, which, though he didn’t name them, has been developed by Gyroscope and Orbit Biomedical, both BIA members. And he promised tax changes to increase incentives for businesses to invest in capital and research, hinting at the BIA’s long-called for expansions to R&D tax credits.

The speech gave several reasons to be hopeful for beneficial policies for the life sciences sector, and suggests a strong influence from individuals like George Freeman MP and the man who helped Sir John Bell write the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy, Will Warr, who is now the Prime Minister’s Special Adviser on Health, Social Care, Life Sciences, Technology & AI.

Another Number 10 advisor, Dominic Cummings, could also be a driving force behind a pro-science policy agenda. He has spent time studying research funding systems. “He will want to make progress on what he sees as the country’s ‘moon shot’, its national mission – to make the UK the best place in the world to do science and to be educated,” one of Cumming’s friends reportedly told Politics Home. The BIA has heard the same.

Cummings, a ringleader of the Vote Leave campaign and shrewd political operator, has been brought in by Boris to deliver on his flagship policy to take the UK out of the EU, “do or die”, on the 31 October, with or without a deal.

There is much speculation about the new administration’s ability to take the UK out of the EU without the explicit backing of Parliament. With 311 MPs, the Government does not have a parliamentary majority and Boris may also have to contend with a number of his own backbenchers who are openly opposed to his premiership and approach to Brexit. If the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) support the Government in key votes, such as a Brexit deal (if one emerges), the Queen’s Speech and Budgets, Boris will have a working majority of 2. However, this may be diminished by Conservative rebels and pending byelections.   

Boris’ arrival in Downing Street has given renewed urgency to no-deal preparations across Government. The supply of medicines is the Government’s number one priority so more resources and focus to ensure patients and public health are protected will be welcomed by the life sciences sector. But we will continue to advocate for no-deal to be avoided at all costs. George Freeman’s installation as a transport minister may also mean the sector has an ally in its work to secure supply chains.

Despite sweeping away of the majority of Theresa May’s Cabinet, Boris has not shaken up the Whitehall departments, as many incoming Prime Ministers do. This means the Business department has kept Industrial Strategy in its title, suggesting the interventionist approach is still in favour. The life sciences sector (and science more broadly) benefitted from the Industrial Strategy so we are pleased to see it retained.   

Andrea Leadsom has been made Business Secretary. She has said little about the sector or science so it is hard to predict what her tenure will bring. The science community may be reassured slightly that Jo Johnson – Boris’ younger brother – has been returned to the universities, research and innovation portfolio and this time will also attend Cabinet, meaning a stronger voice for the community at the heart of government.

Lord Duncan has taken up the life sciences minister role in the Business Department, replacing Lord Henley. Lord Duncan is an ex-MEP who has been a minister with responsibility for the devolved nations since 2017. He’s unknown to the life sciences sector but his understanding of the EU could be very helpful. He will share the life sciences brief with Baroness Blackwood, who has been retained as Minister for Innovation in the health department.

Matt Hancock has also kept his place as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, which provides welcome continuity for the life sciences sector. Hancock is an enthusiastic backer of innovation in healthcare and has Co-Chaired the Life Sciences Council, on which the BIA also sits along with an invited member.

With a Spending Review on the horizon, the new Chancellor is perhaps the most important Cabinet appointment for the life sciences sector. This has gone to ex-banker Sajid Javid, who is a proponent of small government and free markets. As business secretary, he sought to reduce Innovate UK’s budget and infamously banned the phrase industrial strategy. But he has aligned himself with a Prime Minister who seems comfortable with an interventionist approach. Boris has hinted at an expansions of R&D tax incentives and also made expensive commitments to other areas of public spending in his leadership campaign that must now be delivered by the Chancellor. This could squeeze other areas in the Spending Review, with a potential impact on research and innovation budgets. 

At present, the Prime Minister’s initial words have given confidence to the life sciences sector that it will be a priority for his government, and we trust he is prepared to take bold actions to support UK entrepreneurs and prepare our economy for the future. The question is: will they ever get beyond the immediate task of Brexit to implement their domestic agenda?

The BIA has prepared a guide to the new government with key ministers and policy makers for the life sciences sector.

Note: This piece originally appeared on the BioIndustry Association website

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