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The life sciences sector is the jewel in the crown of British industry and has been for some time.

It outperforms all others in terms of productivity and growth, making it the teacher’s pet of the Industrial Strategy and a beacon for how industry and government can collaborate successfully on big-ticket issues such as genomics and personalised medicine.

It is no surprise, therefore, that a government eager for good press would look to its star player to launch the first of a series of ‘Sector Deals’ on the 6th December.

The launch of the Deal was underpinned by 25 organisations, including industry heavyweights AstraZeneca and GSK, pledging multi-million pound investments and illustrating their faith in post-Brexit Britain.

But does it live up to its ‘transformational’ press-release-billing? Does it provide a ‘shift in pace and culture’ as Professor Sir John Bell – author of several landmark industry strategies – claimed in the Lords last week?

The answer is: wait and see.

Long-term plan

That’s because last week's publication was arguably more about newspapers than new treatments. The real detail comes later, and text of the Sector Deal – despite some interesting announcements – served mostly as sheet music to announcements of new investments from industry.

Rather than a plan of action, the Sector Deals are ‘living documents’ that will act as a long-term conduit between government and industry. The life sciences deal will kick-off in January 2018, led by an implementation board of government and industry leaders and will report to BEIS minister on progress bi-annually.

In terms of announcements of substance made, the Sector Deal re-iterated funding pledges that were set out in the Industrial Strategy. These included pledged on R&D investment, increases in the R&D tax credit to 12% and a £146m investment programme for medicines manufacturing.

In addition, oversight of Patient Access Schemes will be transferred from the Department of Health to NHS England, creating a single point of contact for companies looking to access the NHS. This comes alongside the re-iteration of an existing £86m to support innovators and the NHS in overcoming barriers to getting the right new, innovative technologies to patients.

This is part of a wider move towards streamlining entry routes for breakthrough medicines and will be a welcome step.

Accelerated Access Review taking centre stage

Of the numerous areas on the ‘wait and see list,’ was the crucial juncture of collaboration with the NHS. As the sector’s biggest customer in a single payer system, the importance of innovative commissioning routes cannot be underestimated.

Interestingly, the Accelerated Access Review (AAR) implementation plan will take on the bulk of this work. The implementation of the AAR has already been set out, but last week it was announced that the AAR would also take on responsibility for ‘improving the NHS’s commercial capacity.’ By no means a small task. More information on this will be published at a later date and will no doubt be watched closely by the sector. The upshot is that engagement with the NHS and the health sector will take place outside the corridors of BEIS and will be closer aligned to the Department of Health through the AAR.

Elephant(s) in the room…(Yes, one of them is Brexit)

Despite the announcement being broadly welcomed by the sector, it comes one day after the pharma industry unanimously told the BEIS Committee that Brexit uncertainty is causing disruption and concern.

A panel of pharma industry representatives told Rachel Reeves MP and BEIS Committee Members that redeemable factors for Brexit were few and far between, but the negative impacts could be swift and devastating for industry, causing patients to miss out on medicines in the short, medium and long term.

Patrick Vallance, GSK’s Head of Research, and soon to become the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, commented that “the UK needs to recognise going forward that science is an international endeavour, not a parochial endeavour,” signalling that securing the UK’s position in a global marketplace after Brexit remains front of mind.

The other elephants in the room include NHS funding and the PPRS negotiations.

For all the positive noise about breakthrough treatments reaching patients faster through streamlined access models carved out via the Accelerated Access Collaborative (AAC), the NHS is still short of cash.

There is a disconnect between the language of ambition and growth used in life sciences sector documents and the language of efficiency and cutbacks used at NHS England headquarters. While in the long-term the implementation of the AAR could see a culture shift in terms of uptake and access, industry is wary that significant changes in access policy the short term are unlikely.

The PPRS negotiations are due to start in January 2018 and will provide a flavour of the re-imbursement and pricing landscape for pharmaceuticals in post-Brexit Britain.

Given the breadth of the investment announced, it is clear that sector confidence in the UK is there from an R&D point of view, but transferring promising medicines through to routine commissioning is a different case. It may be that the government will use the Sector Deal as a carrot and the PPRS as a stick, balancing greater access and uptake with an offer of lower prices overall.

For some time there has been a warning from industry commentators that there is a real threat that breakthroughs discovered in the UK (more likely following last week's R&D focused Sector Deal) will not be made available to patients in the UK because of issues of pricing.

Watch this space

Greg Clark and co. can see the announcement as a success. Warmly welcomed by industry and a much-needed good news story.

But in reality, the real tests for this Sector Deal are yet to come.