The 2020s: Boris Johnson's decade to prove his life sciences plan

December 2019

The Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has won an historic general election victory in the UK – the biggest Conservative majority since 1987. The main opposition party, Labour, has fallen to its largest defeat since 1935.

After two years of political paralysis, caused by the hung parliament that resulted from the 2017 general election, Mr Johnson and his government now have a free hand to take the UK in the direction they wish to.

What does this mean for the life sciences sector in the UK?

First and foremost, this result means that the UK will, with certainty, leave the EU at 11pm on 31 January 2020. It will then enter a transition period, until the end of 2020. During this time, some elements of EU law, including provisions relevant to pharmaceutical and medical device products will, with modification, be retained.

Mr Johnson has vouched in his manifesto that he will negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU during the transition period, based on the outline Political Declaration, although many question whether that is possible in such a short time. However, the government has already said the 2020 date will be fixed in law, raising the chance of leaving the EU without a free trade deal in place. That said, the strong mandate that the government now has means that Johnson can simultaneously use the possibility of a 'no deal' as negotiating leverage, while having the domestic political freedom to explore options and make compromises. Both may actually help speed the process up.

Regarding the Unified Patent Court, if the complaint against this system is dismissed by the Federal German Constitutional Court early in 2020, then the ideal time to fix this to allow UK participation will be during the transition period.

More generally, and domestically, the Conservative Party's political philosophy towards business activity in general is about encouraging change from the bottom up: creating the conditions for boosting research and development to allow market forces (within limits) and new technology (such as AI) to boost innovation.

Post-Brexit, the relaxation of certain regulations is also seen as a tool in the government's box. Indeed, in the context of agriculture, Boris Johnson used his very first speech as Prime Minister back in July 2019 to pledge to revoke certain EU measures he sees as imposing a restriction on the development of genetically modified crops.

The Prime Minister has also pledged to develop a new fast-track visa route for the brightest and best to come to the UK with a view to the UK's continued role as a "global science superpower", and to "develop and export our innovation around the world." The man who most has the PM's ear – special adviser, Dominic Cummings – has also written that the UK needs to turn to scientists and engineers and "reasonable people… should pressure their MPs to take their responsibilities to science x100 more seriously than they do".

The Prime Minister has, in particular, spoken of how he expects investment in research and development to be unleashed after Brexit is completed. This attitude is backed-up in the Conservative Party manifesto, which intends to increase domestic public R&D spending, including in basic science research, to meet the target of 2.4 per cent of GDP being spent on R&D across the economy. Some of this will go to a new agency for high-risk, high payoff research and the government promises to invest in clusters around the UK's "world-leading" universities.

The manifesto also specifically targets the life sciences sector – "we will make the UK the leading global hub for life sciences after Brexit" – and says the government will turn to the great challenges of the future such as curing dementia and solving antibiotic resistance. To address the issue of drug prices, the manifesto also pledges to extend the Cancer Drugs Fund into an Innovative Medicines Fund allowing doctors "to use the most advanced, life-saving treatments for conditions such as cancer or autoimmune disease, or for children with other rare diseases".

The PM and the Conservative government will be measured against these promises by businesses and other organisations in the life sciences sector in the years to come. With a large majority for Mr Johnson, this will be five years at least, and quite possibly longer. The 2020s will be Johnson's decade to prove his plan for the UK life sciences sector.

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Steering wheel

Paul England

Paul is a senior professional support lawyer in our London office, specialising in patents law.

"...the UK will, with certainty, leave the political institutions of the EU on 31 January 2020."

"The Prime Minister expects investment in research and development to be unleashed after Brexit is completed."