Labour, the NHS, and life sciences: Partnerships and people

Houses of Parliament - a Labour government

The United Kingdom this morning woke to landslide poll results: Labour is in on just 34% of the vote following the worst Conservative defeat in the party’s history. King Charles III has now officially invited Sir Keir Starmer to form a government – the first Labour administration since 2010. But, what does a Labour Government actually mean for the life sciences industry and healthcare in the UK? And how will the party once more build public trust?

The pharmaphorum inbox has been awash with comments in the run up to and since the results of the election – held on the 4th July – and so too have industry conferences been replete with mention of just what Labour in power might mean for the UK. Here, we look back at some of the most pertinent points, given indeed that public support for Labour is “shallow”, as the Financial Times termed it, and Starmer himself stating that, “The fight for trust is the battle that defines our age.”

A manifesto for change

The Labour Manifesto sets out that the party intends to cut NHS waiting times, offering 40,000 more appointments a week by paying staff more to work weekends and evenings. It also states an intention to expand the NHS workforce, with thousands more medical training places, and modernise hospital equipment to catch cancer and other conditions earlier. Prevention and early diagnosis are crucial.

The party will also seek to guarantee a face-to-face GP appointment by training more GPs, and modernise the appointment booking system in order to “end the 8am scramble”.

Importantly, also, Labour intends to recruit 8,500 more mental health staff, and will begin to create a National Care Service to set minimum standards for social care, and reach a collective agreement on pay and conditions for carers.

Industry responses to the election results

As Phil Taylor reported, this morning, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) released its comments on the election results, noting that the life sciences sector is a vital partner for Labour’s plans.

With congratulations to Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour Party, Richard Torbett, chief executive of the ABPI, said: “A strong industry-government partnership will be vital to ensure that we continue to discover breakthrough medical innovation in the UK and ensure NHS patients are among the first people in the world to benefit from the latest medicines and vaccines.”

The ABPI’s own ‘Manifesto for Investment, Health, and Growth,’ sets out a plan to drive better health and fairness to patients in the NHS, boost patient access to new medicines via clinical trials, bring more manufacturing jobs and value to the UK, and create more highly-skilled well-paid jobs in all parts of the country. This “all parts of the country” clarification is critical: health inequalities are yet rife across the UK, whether that be in England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, preventative healthcare testing organisation the London Medical Laboratory’s clinical lead, Dr Avinash Hari Narayanan (MBChB), commented: “Labour has promised to cut the NHS waiting list with 40,000 more appointments each week, during evenings and weekends, which it claims will be paid for by cracking down on tax avoidance and non-dom loopholes. It also promises the “Return of the family doctor”. These are welcome pledges.”

Dr Narayanan also agreed with the “prevention is better than cure” ethos of the party’s Manifesto.

BioInfect Liverpool and the North West

Taking a step back to February this year, when the Labour Manifesto was announced, pharmaphorum attended the BioInfect conference in Liverpool, an event that focused on AMR, but also broadened out its focus to regional life sciences’ concerns and health equity.

As reported in Deep Dive’s Market Access issue 2024, BioInfect saw the Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotherham, sharing investment plans for the life sciences sector, before the official launch at the conference of the Liverpool City Region Investment Zone in Health and Life Sciences. Also at BioInfect was John H Rex, chief medical officer at F2G Ltd, operating partner at Advent Life Sciences, and adjunct professor of medicine at McGovern Medical School, who gave a keynote address wherein he discussed how the US “drives a lot of healthcare policy worldwide”, but also how “when people don’t do healthy people things, the economy gets hit.”

Rex commented on how the approaching US elections – none had back then foreseen Sunak’s snap General Election decision – would be revelatory, in so far as impact on healthcare policy with “the changing of the guard”, and that sentiment applies now also, with Labour’s victory. While Rex made note of AMR transcending the Republican-Democrat debate and the introduction of the Third Congress Pasteur Act, he aptly said “We’re in position now”, and this reflects well also with regard to the newly elected Labour Government in terms of potential amelioration of the UK life sciences industry and British healthcare system.

Another keynote given by Lord Jim O’Neill – the man behind the O’Neill Report – noted how “governments don’t have a lot of cash flying around these days, but it can be found if the attention and urgency are there now.” What’s needed, he said, are incentives, and that there are issues within the very business model of pharma. On the NHS, Lord O’Neill commented: “It’s shocking how tech can’t be embedded right in [the] middle of the NHS to allow it to help and solve some of the long-term financial issues of the country.” Indeed, the NHS App is widely thought to play a key role going forwards, however, David Glover, deputy head of the medicines analysis team at NHS England, did not respond on this point of Lord O’Neill’s when he gave a joint presentation on the UK antimicrobial products subscription model with Sophie Cooper, senior scientific advisor on the Science Policy and Research Programme at NICE.

Vaccinating Britain: Labour’s Liverpool conference 2023

Looking back even further to the October 2023 Chamber-, Curia-, and Moderna-sponsored Vaccinating Britain event at INNSide by melia next to The Capital and Home Office building - at the time, the Labour Party Conference was being held in the city.

Former Shadow Minister Paula Sheriff, programme manager of health inequalities at Wakefield CCG and previous Labour MP for Dewsbury, who works with inclusion health groups, examining increasing the vaccine uptake of people who don’t traditionally access such, and looking at the barriers, wanted to broach how to deal with health misconceptions within minority groups of the population. This includes going into workplaces, into mosques, and actively targeting people who may not necessarily come forward due to language or culture, or having heard something about the vaccine.

At the time, they had recently secured funding from NHS England and were going into contingency accommodation sites in West Yorkshire, vaccinating MMR and COVID and flu. Sheriff asked the room for a show of hands as to whether attendees – healthcare professionals who had come from far and wide – were persuaded that, under a Labour Government, the UK could become a world leader in vaccinations: most were confident and some, indeed, super confident. But, as Peter Dowd, MP for Bluethorpe, noted, when it comes to vaccination, COVID became a proxy for vaccine drive and debate and there needs to be a subtle assessment of the difference between misinformation and disinformation.

Councillor Harry Doyle, director of Aspire Liverpool and Cabinet Member for Health, Wellbeing & Culture, mentioned the conspiracy theories that ever seem to arise when it comes to vaccination. In Liverpool, he said, MMR vaccinations are very low, with a steep fall in uptake over the past decade. Importantly, he noted that trust is not placed in governments, but in communities; that’s why the city of Liverpool has a Health Champions network, where people known to their local communities spread the ‘true word’ on vaccination. During COVID, by using Health Champions in ethnic minority communities, there was a 20% uptick in vaccine implementation, he said.

Also present was Stuart Carroll, director of market access and policy affairs at Moderna, who had been with the Vaccines Taskforce. He highlighted the relevance of vaccine complacency in the conversation; that people just don’t realise that influenza, for instance, is a serious illness. Openness, perhaps, is key, in that industry should better explain how vaccines are developed, the processes they go through, suggested Carroll, but by and large, politics should “be kept out of science”, except when it comes to budgets and pull-through.

This said, essentially, it was collaboration and partnership that were agreed upon as key drivers going forwards – and that includes civil society. GP and parliamentary candidate for Stroud at the time, Simon Opher also lent his thoughts to the debate, commenting that one gets vaccinated as an individual to protect other people. “It’s quite socialist, anti-Thatcherite,” he said, adding, though, that, “Education comes above vaccination in terms of effectiveness.” That includes prevention, and strategic partnership.

Indeed, as Sir Keir Starmer stated in his speech at the October Labour Party Conference, the intention is to get “The NHS – off its knees. A Britain with its future back.” In response, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation (which speaks for the whole healthcare system in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland), later said: “Our members know that investing in prevention and moving care closer to communities, alongside taking a truly joined-up and cross-government approach to health are key to making the NHS a more sustainable public service.” So, the awareness and intentions are there – but will the walk be walked this time, now that Labour is in office?

From promises to action

In March this year, research from Ayming UK – a consultancy specialising in innovation funding – found that, despite the Tory government’s continuous efforts to reform UK R&D, 79% of British pharmaceutical and life sciences businesses backed Labour on innovation. The findings were based on a survey of over 600 businesses, including 101 from the pharmaceutical and life sciences sector.

With new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) earlier this month revealing that Government-financed healthcare spending was around £239bn in 2023 – a real-term decrease of 2.1% - London Medical Laboratory’s Dr Narayanan had projected that, “these figures are probably not what the Conservatives wanted to hear.”

Prior to the General Election, Dr Ben Maruthappu MBE, former innovation advisor to the NHS and founder and chief executive of Cera, a UK technology-led home healthcare provider, noted in response to the Labour Manifesto: “Better integration between health and social care is critical to end this crisis […] Technology is crucial to deliver on these goals - improving the quality, speed, and cohesion of care […] We welcome Labour’s plans to transform the NHS app, putting patients in control of their own health, as well as other important initiatives to improve dementia treatment and care.”

And following today’s result, Santosh Sahu, CEO and founder of pharmacy tech platform Charac, on the next steps for the new Labour Government to support healthtechs and other start-ups in the UK, said: “We do not just need more money from the Government, but from investors. VCs in the US last year invested $170bn in start-ups, compared to $22bn in the UK. Supporting tax-efficient incentives, such as EIS, SEIS, and VCT schemes for investors can drive more investment in our nation’s exciting start-ups.”

Certainly, despite the UK seeing the third-most healthtech investment globally, the US is seen as a markedly more attractive market for start-ups. In addition to funding, Sahu commented, “This is because of a more supportive regulatory environment - 46% of healthtech companies have removed products from the UK market due to regulatory uncertainty. Healthtech today in the UK is comparable to where fintech was over a decade ago, and it was regulations such as Open Banking and a regulatory sandbox that facilitated the UK becoming a world leader in fintech. This is something the government has not yet addressed.”

He concluded: “With Labour’s calls for a more digital, interconnected NHS, they will need to look at regulations that actually facilitate competition, collaboration, and interoperability to accelerate the UK’s economy, and create a more favourable environment for start-ups.”

The ball, then, is now very much in Labour’s court. As Sir Keir Starmer selects his cabinet – as of writing Rachel Reeves has been named the UK’s first female chancellor and Angela Rayner made Deputy Prime Minister – questions of trust and action, and collaboration between government, life sciences, the NHS, and indeed the public, remain to be answered to. After all, the “fight for trust” might very well be one for the age, but it is most explicitly one for the Labour Party now.