NHS reforms

25.01.17

Growing fears that NHS may be bumped to ‘second rank’ for new drugs post-Brexit

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has admitted that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is unlikely to remain in the UK following Brexit, potentially slowing down Britain’s access to new medicines.

Hunt made the admission while giving evidence to the Health Select Committee inquiry regarding the impact of Brexit on health and social care, while expressing his hopes for a “sensible, strong relationship” going forward with the EMA.

MPs criticised the revelation, accusing the health secretary of giving up the UK’s membership of the regulator “without even a fight”.

“We might move into the second rank for drugs being launched, in that Canada and Australia get access to new drugs six months to a year behind the EU and the US, and that’s just market size,” warned Dr Philippa Whitford, one of the committee members.

Former health minister Ben Bradshaw added: “[The EMA] is vital for the whole of the functioning of our medicines industry ... We seem to be giving up this one without even a fight.”

The agency is used to market medicines across the EU, enabling pharmaceutical companies to bypass drugs regulators in individual member states such as the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

It is the biggest EU institution based in the UK, with its headquarters having been located in London for over 20 years – leading MPs to fear that the UK and the NHS will lose priority access to medicines as a result of the move.

However, Hunt sought to pour cold water on the committee’s concerns, arguing that he had high hopes for a “sensible, strong partnership” with the regulator, including mutual recognition between the EMA and the MHRA and the “closest possible regulatory equivalents” in licencing drugs.

“The EU has as much to gain as we do from that relationship [with the EMA] because of the scientific expertise in this country,” Hunt continued. “Around 30% of EU chemical trials have some of their work done in Britain, so we have a very, very important role.”

But while the secretary of state clarified that he was hoping for the UK to work “very, very closely” with the EMA, he warned that he “can’t prejudge the negotiations”. 

Hunt also rejected the proposition that the move was out of fears that the UK will need to remain financially committed to the EMA, saying that it was instead “a matter of sovereignty”.

During the evidence hearing, Hunt also made clear his desires to test new migrant workers in the NHS for ‘clinical English’ rather than only basic English as required under EU law, while ensuring the rights of non-British nationals working in the NHS to remain in the country.

“We need to make sure that they are practically able to stay … but we think they do a fantastic job and we want to keep them,” Hunt added.

Before the inquiry, which took place yesterday afternoon, the health secretary had also written to committee chair Dr Sarah Wollaston emphasising that the government will continue to focus on improving the health and care system in its Brexit negotiations and attempt to deal “positively” with the consequences of the UK’s departure from the EU.

(Image c. House of Commons)

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