On Thursday the UK public voted to leave the European Union. As you will be aware from the position the BIA has taken over the past few months, this is not the outcome that the BIA, as an organisation, wanted and this was made clear in the public statement we released after the result was announced.
However, as a community, we are resilient and unfazed by new challenges and are staffed by great management teams used to working in a global environment. As our latest report, Money, Momentum and Maturity published last week shows, the sector is in great shape. The outcome of this vote leaves many things unchanged. The fundamentals of UK bioscience remain strong. In terms of potential new therapies in the pipeline, the UK is by far the strongest in Europe. And long-term capital remains committed to our sector.
Yet of course the outcome of the referendum means that several key issues for our sector are now in flux. The number one issue on the minds of many bioscience leaders I spoke to at last week’s BIA CEO and Investor Forum was their people and how to talk with them about the vote to leave the European Union. Be prepared for people to react emotionally, to what for many will be an unwelcome shock. Ensure time for reflection and discussion. Reassure.
What has not changed since the vote is the circumstances of both European Union citizens living here and Britons living in European Union countries. This will be a key message to underline to individuals falling into these categories working in our life sciences sector.
This continuation of current arrangements for European Union citizens currently working and living here in the UK reflects the fact that today’s legal situation is no different to last Thursday’s. The UK will remain a member of the European Union until the UK’s departure has been negotiated. European Union laws will continue to apply to the UK, and the UK will continue to participate in other European Union business as normal. There is no immediate change to the movement of people, access to the single market or to the UK’s participation in the harmonised regulatory regime for medicines.
Sector investor perspectives are also important. Neil Woodford’s statements that his portfolio strategy will not change and that Britain’s long-term economic future would be largely unaffected are reassuring. GW’s positive phase III results in Lennox-Gastaut syndrome – a rare and severe form of epilepsy in children announced today are also helpful boost for the UK sector that will be noticed by investors if not headline writers.
In terms of what will happen within the UK government, David Cameron will be stepping down as Prime Minister and handing over the process of negotiating the UK’s departure from the European Union to his successor. The precise timetable for this Conservative leadership contest still in the process of being finalised but it’s expected that a new Prime Minister will be in place by the start of the Conservative Party conference at the start of October.
This indicates that the formal process to kick-start the UK’s departure from the European Union is not likely to start until at least October. Many of you will know or will have read about Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism that allows any Member State to notify the European Union of its withdrawal and which obligates the European Union to try to negotiate a “withdrawal agreement” with that Member State. Once this happens there will be a two-year window to negotiate a deal. UK membership of the European Union will cease either on the entry into force of a withdrawal agreement, or if no new agreement is concluded, after the two-year period is up (unless there is unanimous agreement to extend the negotiating period).
Whilst the outcome of the referendum clearly represents a fundamental shift in the UK’s relationship with the European Union, it will take months and years, not days and weeks, to understand what our current membership of the European Union will be replaced with and what this means both generally for the UK and specifically for the UK life sciences sector. Despite the frantic activity that we currently see in both the political and economic spheres, the reality for the issues that are really important for our sector is that these will not change overnight and the forward timescale means that, as a sector, we have time to reflect, gather our thoughts and then work with government and agencies towards the best way forward.
In the BIA’s detailed submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry on EU regulation of the life sciences sector we set out some key sector-specific issues for the life sciences sector that would be impacted by a change in the UK’s membership of and relationship with the European Union: the regulatory regime for medicines, intellectual property and the patents ecosystem and access to EU research funds and collaborative programmes. In addition to this there are more general issues affected by a change in the relationship with the European Union, which have significant impact on the life sciences sector: access to talent, access to the single market and trade.
There are a number of different models for the UK’s future relationship with the European Union. These include membership of the European Economic Area (often referred to as the “Norwegian model”), a bilateral agreement with the European Union (often referred to as the “Swiss model”), a Free Trade Agreement model (often referred to as the “Canadian model”) and a full break/no access agreement with the European Union (often referred to as the “World Trade Organisation model”).
It is far too early to say either which model is most likely, or which might be the preferred option from a life sciences perspective. Discussion on these details will be a key focus for the BIA over the coming period of time. We will collaborate with other partners on the macro issues of people, trade and access to the single market and focus our specific energies on the key issues of relevance to the life sciences sector in relation to medicines regulation, IP and access to European research funds and collaborative programmes.
The outcome of the vote does not change the BIA’s commitment to making the UK the third global cluster for life sciences and we will work closely with government and relevant agencies to see how this new environment can be harnessed to deliver on this ambition.
This week I will be in Brussels attending the Europabio Board meeting, explaining the BIA’s views and hearing the perspective on the outcome from our European colleagues.
The BIA’s annual Parliament Day on Thursday 7 July is also a great opportunity for us to put our questions direct to an impressive roster of policy makers and politicians from both the Remain and Leave camps, as well as Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee Nicola Blackwood MP who has already committed the Committee to looking at the impact of the vote for British science. This will be followed by the Summer Reception which offers a great opportunity for the sector to come together.
I will also be updating the BIA Board on the status of debate and proposed next steps at its next meeting at the end of July.
Your insight and input is vital to ensure your Association is focused on the issues of key concern, as many things are now in flux I welcome your thoughts and views as we look to respond to the unfolding situation.