Labour’s life sciences sector plan – confident not revolutionary

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By James Maxwell, Senior Account Manager, Incisive Health

Last Thursday, at a 400-delegate strong business conference organised by the party, Labour unveiled A Prescription for Growth – its plan for the life sciences sector under a Starmer administration.

With a foreword by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, the plan is serious about the challenges the sector faces, and sets out aspirations for Britain to restore its leadership in medicines manufacturing while boosting clinical trials and ramping-up R&D investment.

Positive rhetoric on life sciences is a key part of Labour’s broader message on the NHS – that it will build an NHS ‘fit for the future’, harnessing technology to challenge conventional ways of working. ‘Modernise or die’, as the Shadow Health Secretary has succinctly put it.

However, when looking at the substance of Labour’s plan, it largely represents a continuation of the status quo. In the main, the policy proposals are aligned with existing government policy, from a commitment to the Life Science’s Vision to the application of the O’Shaughnessy review.

Labour would argue that the difference between the parties will be delivery, and that they will grow the life sciences sector where the Conservatives have overseen a decline - turning the country from a net-exporter of pharmaceutical goods to a net-importer in just over a decade.

The underlying purpose of A Prescription for Growth is to demonstrate that Labour are a safe pair of hands when it comes to life sciences; providing reassurance to a sector it once sought to nationalise.

It is an accumulation of Labour’s efforts since 2020 to rebuild business confidence, and is symbolic of the party’s wider efforts to position Labour as a credible alternative for government.

While the plan has been enthusiastically welcomed by industry, there is still an opportunity for the sector to demonstrate to Labour why and how it can afford to be bolder.

The plan is largely focused on addressing the challenges of today. But there is a gap when it comes to addressing the challenges of tomorrow.

While the UK’s medicines regulators and assessors can be nimble and agile (as seen during the pandemic), the frameworks which govern their approaches do not allow, for instance, the radical shift towards preventative healthcare that Labour envisages. Delays in access to innovation are caused by fragmentation within the current NHS system, with a need to think radically if Britain is to aspire to keep up with advancements in science which will equip the NHS to manage rising demands and changing demographics.

There is an opportunity for industry to bridge the gap, including setting out the reforms to the current system that will deliver benefits for patients, drive growth in the economy and support highly skilled jobs. Labour’s fiscal cautiousness presents a potential challenge to transformational ideas, but with the medicines budget fixed for almost the entirety of the first term of the next government, there is space for innovative thinking about innovation within the party’s fiscal rules.

When it comes down to it, industry will be confident that Labour has listened and will offer partnership in government where distrust once grew.