Can we have a steady hand, please? – How can Rishi Sunak be a positive force for British Pharma

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Rishi Sunak - UK Pharma

The appointment of Rishi Sunak to Prime Minister was yet another turn in the melodrama that has been British politics for some months now. When the wheel finally turned to Riski, those who considered him the financial hero of lockdowns were undeniably pleased. Others were less sure of the new PM, considering him too young and too privileged to understand what the job entailed. From the Pharma industry point of view, though, what could the new PM offer?

2022, political soap operas, rising costs and constant change

I think there was a point during all the political shenanigans, machinations and dramas last year where we all wanted someone to just stand up and take control. After Johnson resigned, with the usual media-pleasing flourish, Sunak was touted as a potential replacement, only to lose out to Liz Truss after a long and occasionally rather bitter campaign. Truss proved to be, frankly speaking, an economic and political disaster of such epic proportions that it felt almost like an episode of The Thick of It. The economy tanked, the pound dropped in spectacular fashion, and the government seemed to be free-wheeling. After a few weeks of sputtering around like an out-of-control Catherine wheel, Truss resigned, and Sunak took up residence in Downing Street.

This, in the middle of a year when continuing Covid-related problems, a war in Europe, the seemingly endless issues surrounding Brexit and the rising cost of supply for, well, just about everything, was already making 2022 a difficult time for pharma from retail sales through to the research labs.

Sunak and pharma, what could he do?

The first thing we probably need to do is recognise that whether you approve of his appointment or not, Sunak has taken on what many see as a poisoned chalice. He is facing a difficult economic problem, and while we naturally want him to fund the Pharmaceutical industry, we do need to be a little understanding of his position. That said, the importance of pharma to the economy, employment and the overseas standing of British innovation cannot be ignored.

In their life sciences vision publication published in the summer of 2021, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson had nothing but praise for the Pharma sector. The document promises support and recognition of the contribution made by the industry and then goes on to lay out a series of occasionally rather unspecific measures designed to support development and growth. In the wider context of ‘Building Back better’, the government promised there would be five key areas that would be the backbone of the new UK post pandemic. These were:

  • Access to finance
  • Regulation
  • Skills
  • Manufacturing
  • Trade and Investment

All in all, this is a very encouraging agenda for the pharma sector.

In many ways, the first thing that Sunak could do is simply follow through on the promises made by the Conservative party over the last three years.

Looking forward, we need to acknowledge that some positive steps have been taken. Pharma has received investment in several areas, including manufacturing, and some of the new post-Brexit regulatory initiatives should speed up the approval process and, therefore, time to market. This is encouraging, but much more can be done.

In an open letter sent to Mr Sunak during his leadership bid, Richard Torbett, Chief Executive of The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, is very clear about the benefit of pharma to the UK. Citing a likely contribution of £68 billion in additional GPD, amongst other benefits, he also points out that we are falling behind in many areas. Most shocking is that we have fallen from 4th to 98th in overall trade balance in pharmaceuticals in just 12 years. So, while there has been investment, clearly, there are areas that still need to be considered a priority.

Brexit and the skills shortage crisis are two additional areas where the industry would also like you to spare some attention. Despite being 2nd and 3rd in the international rankings for the study of life sciences, with Cambridge and Oxford universities, respectively, on a practical level, there are simply not enough available people with high-level skill sets in the UK. Attracting overseas talent is one area where the government could now step in to expedite and encourage access to talent. Post-Brexit issues with shipping, storage, overseas investment and many other problems also need serious attention if we are not to fall behind our European counterparts.

Finally, there is probably one plea that will be echoed in the boardrooms or Pharma businesses up and down the UK. We need stability. The damage done to the economy, trust and our international standing by the recent problems in government has been devastating. We are probably yet to see the full effect in terms of the dollar rate and reluctance to invest in the UK, but please, Mr Sunak, stop the instability. Keep a steady hand on the tiller and steer us to a more reliable economic climate.

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