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Deal or No Deal – The draft Brexit deal and life sciences careers

Andy Haywood our consultant managing the role
Andy Haywood our consultant managing the role
Posted: 29/09/2019

Theresa May has announced that the UK and EU have formulated a first draft deal for Brexit. Following months of negotiation and uncertainty, this appears to be a step towards finalising a decision on the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Pharmaceutical companies across Europe and the UK are hopeful this initial draft will help give some clarity on the transition to Brexit and allow the life sciences industry to effectively prepare. However, with patient access to medicines, as well as countless jobs on the line, what does the Brexit draft deal mean for those working in life sciences?

Preparing for all outcomes

The future of Brexit has been unclear from the outset as politicians and the public debate the outcomes of a soft vs hard Brexit.

Brexit is a global issue impacting more than just the UK as the future relationship with the European Union (EU), the European Economic Area (EEA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) are all still yet to be confirmed.

As noted by Corinna Peachey, senior director for corporate affairs at Eli Lilly, the scope of the impact is difficult to underestimate. “Whether you’re a small biotech with one product or you’re a massive company with hundreds of products; whether you’re a US, European, or British company, we all go through the EMA process”. This new draft is yet to confirm if the UK will maintain regulatory alignment with existing EU terms meaning the future of UK medicine development and quality control is unknown.

Many are hopeful an agreement will be made before 29 March 2019 to protect the medicines and medical devices industries. A “No Deal Brexit” will result in existing ties between the EU and UK being dissolved, leaving crucial decisions to be made in the already short transition period that ends 31 December 2020.

Patient access to medicines, medical devices and clinical trial research is a core concern amongst healthcare and life science specialists, particularly within the NHS. Regardless of the outcome of Brexit, there will be additional complications in the transportation and customs checks required on medicines and medical devices arriving to the UK.

To combat these risks, pharmaceutical companies have been advised to stockpile drugs and up to six weeks’ worth of supplies, as well as organise the advance delivery of vital medicines. These are expensive and logistically challenging requirements, especially for the smaller, start-up pharmaceutical companies. Whilst the EU and UK officials continue to debate, pharmaceutical companies have had to prepare for various worst-case scenarios to ensure the delivery of vital medicines and resources across Europe.

Does the draft agreement for Brexit mean progress?

The withdrawal deal has been well-received by The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI):

“We welcome this important step towards securing a Brexit deal” commented Mike Thompson, CEO at the ABPI. “Agreeing a transition period will mean that our members can continue to supply medicines to patients without delay or disruption come March 2019.”

With a “No Deal Brexit” threatening to create havoc for pharmaceutical companies and the life sciences industry, this draft agreement signifies a promising sign of progress in the deliberations.

Promisingly, May’s draft also includes the protection of EU nationals living in the UK for five consecutive years to have right to stay permanently in the UK with their families, but many of the core debates impacting the life sciences industry have not yet been addressed:

  • Regulatory alignment between the EU and UK
  • Access to grants and funding for UK scientists
  • The final decision on visa-free travel and work to and from EU member states
  • And more still under debate

A key issue raised by Nobel prize winning geneticist, Paul Nurse, is how the scientific community is hoping to thrive with a loss of EU funding: “Beyond the transition period, the UK still stands to lose £1 billion [US$1.3 billion] a year that we currently get from the EU science budget, and it’s not clear how this might be replaced.”

There are many questions still to be answered and this draft, although seeming to show some agreement between the EU and UK officials, has a long way to go before it is finalised. Theresa May now needs to take her deal through the UK parliament, but with ministers resigning from her own Cabinet and a strong opposition standing firmly against Brexit, passing a deal will not be easy.

As Hugh Pym, Health Editor for the BBC, highlights, there is still much uncertainty. “With the deal agreed by the cabinet yet to get through Parliament, contingency planning will continue”.

Post-Brexit life sciences uncertainty remains

A key concern about Brexit within the scientific community is how it will impact life sciences recruitment and career opportunities. Uncertainty can often lead to a reduction in hiring, especially with the future of EU scientists, researchers, engineers and doctors currently living in the UK to be determined.

A survey of over 4300 professionals working across clinical trials and life sciences showed that almost two-thirds of UK managers involved in recruiting life sciences professional anticipate that Brexit will impact the UK’s attraction of top talent from within the European Union. The survey, conducted by the New Scientist, also highlighted that many believe it would be more difficult to retain existing staff.

We’ve already seen how Brexit is impacting the careers of pharmacovigilance professionals in the UK. As it currently stands, to remain compliant with EU drug safety regulation, the EU-QPPV and PSMF will not be able to operate in the UK after Brexit. This has forced many to question their willingness to relocate. Whilst this has resulted in some looking for new QPPV job opportunities, it has also created new pharmacovigilance jobs across the EU and UK.

Next steps

Theresa May now needs to get parliament on board with her draft deal. This will likely be an uphill challenge, meaning the pharmaceutical industry will need to continue preparing for various Brexit deal scenarios. Until a decision is made, uncertainty will remain, but this can also lead to various opportunities for personal development and career progression as pharmaceutical companies of all sizes look to retain and attract top talent from across the UK and EU in their preparations.

Overall, there is still no defined solution to the outcome of Brexit and life sciences professionals are concerned about the level of uncertainty, including the president of the Royal Society in London Venki Ramakrishnan: “We are now just months away from Brexit. It is time for an end to the uncertainty that has been damaging science and every other part of life in the UK”.

Debates continue and contingency plans are still underway, but it is not all doom and gloom. From a personal perspective, now is a prime time to review your own position within the life sciences industry and what opportunities and challenges this brings to your career:

  • Will your department be directly or indirectly impacted by Brexit?
  • Is relocation a feasible option for you?
  • Is this your chance to move into a more senior role in life sciences management?
  • Are there additional opportunities within your current or other companies created by Brexit?
  • Could Brexit springboard a positive development in your career?

With the additional regulatory and logistical planning, there are several roles opening around Brexit as pharmaceutical companies implement their preparations. If you would like to know more about how Brexit may be impacting your life sciences vertical and discuss your job opportunities with a life sciences recruitment expert, get in touch with our team for confidential and exclusive career guidance and advice.

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