George Freeman: This new report shows how we can build on Britain’s vaccine success to make the best of Brexit

16 Jun

George Freeman is a former Minister for Life Science and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (2016-18). He is co-author and editor of the 2020 Conservatives book Britain Beyond Brexit.

Nothing better illustrates the advantages of being outside the EU than the UK’s vaccine success. Our leadership in genomics, vaccine research and development, accelerated access trials and our ability to procure at speed has allowed the UK to lead the world in the battle against the pandemic. This has been a London 2012 moment for UK Life Science.

But it could have been very different. In 2010, the UK Life Science sector was in a decline: Pfizer closed its UK R+D HQ, Astra Zeneca announced it was closing its UK R+D HQ to move to Massachusetts, and other companies were reducing their UK presence.

The UK was falling behind as a global destination of choice. The combination of slower and more expensive clinical trials, slow NHS procurement, lack of leadership in genomics and clinical informatics (data on how new drugs work in patients) set alarm bells ringing.

The new Government responded. Having just been elected after a career in the biomedical research sector, I was lucky enough to be appointed Government Life Science Adviser to lead the UK Life Science Strategy.

We appointed Sir John Bell, launched a ground-breaking ten-year strategic commitment to lead in the genomics and clinical informatics so key to modern research. We unveiled Genomics England, NHS Digital and MHRA parallel approvals. I also launched the Biomedical Catalyst, Accelerated Access Reform to NHS procurement, the Early Access to Innovative Medicines Scheme and the UK Life Science Investment Office. We worked with AZ to persuade them to move to Cambridge UK, not Cambridge Massachusetts.

Over the next five years we pulled in over £5 billion of inward investment. It’s a model of what we can do in other sectors.

Boris Johnson gets this. That’s why I was delighted to accept the Prime Minister’s invitation to help lead the new Taskforce for Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) with Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers. We came from opposite sides of the Brexit debate – two of us having supported Leave and one Remain – but with a shared determination to make this a moment of profound renewal. The urgency of the post-Covid recovery makes this more essential than ever. Our TIGRR report published today shows how the UK can deliver on the promises of Brexit without abandoning our high standards.

We are living through an extraordinary period of technological change – not just in life science but in host of sectors: from AI to robotics to agri-tech, nutraceuticals, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, biofuels, satellites and fusion energy.

The UK is indeed a ‘science superpower’. But we have traditionally been woeful at commercialising here in the UK. There are many reasons. But, in recent years, the EU’s increasingly slow, bureaucratic and ‘precautionary’ approach – copied in Whitehall – has made the EU and the UK an increasingly poor place to commercialise new technology.

In 2013 BASF, one of the giants of German industry, moved its crop science division to the USA because of EU regulations preventing agricultural genomics which are the key to reducing chemical farming by promoting naturally occurring disease resistant traits. That’s why I wrote the Fresh Start Report in 2014 urging the EU to reform to avoid regulating the UK into the slow lane of global bioscience. And why, as UK Minister for the sector, I pushed for reform and warned the EU that they risked the UK leaving if they didn’t reform. They didn’t. We did.

For years the Brexo-sceptics have cynically sneered that there is no Brexit dividend. There is.

We need urgently to usher in a new era of ‘smart’ regulation. That means ensuring that Britain is once again a global leader not just in science but in commercialisation of innovation. We can do that by harnessing the City to make the UK a global innovation financing capital of the world, and through our trade and aid policies to boost global exports and technology transfer. Now those decisions are back in our hands. Our critics assert that the only regulatory dividend is in abolishing workers’ rights and environmental standards in a ‘race to the bottom’. They are profoundly wrong.

Of course, there are some daft regulations we can get rid of like the EU ban on the blight-resistant potato. In fact, the blight-resistant potato reduces the need for around 14 applications of toxic (and highly carbon intensive) fungicide and could help avoid famine and starvation. We can also do without the lobbyists dominating Brussels corridors for big corporates and promoting regulations which exclude new entrants.

Successive governments have announced ‘bonfires of red tape’. But no one would want a vaccine that hadn’t been tested properly. Or food with E. coli. Or dangerous workplaces with high rates of injury.

The key to smart regulation is to play to our strengths. We must embrace global leadership in smart, agile regulation in the highest growing sectors of tomorrow. Around the world, the UK is still highly trusted as a regulator of choice. We have a chance to build on that.

The TIGGR report published today sets out three big recommendations for post-Brexit regulation.

First, a coherent strategic framework for UK regulatory leadership in an innovation age.

Second, ten high-growth sectors we could unlock NOW with the right regulatory structure and where we must focus our efforts for post-Covid Recovery.

Third, a strong commitment to delivery and proper accountability to Parliament. Taking back control means WE set our regulations in a way that reflects UK values and UK public opinion.

Over the course of the last six months, we have held 75 industry roundtables. The result is a serious plan that ensures we become a pioneer of smart, innovative regulation. Not by abandoning our standards but by improving them. The TIGRR report today shows how it can be done.

George Freeman: The industrial strategy reforms I led helped to deliver Britain’s vaccine success. Now for the next phase.

1 Feb

George Freeman is a former Minister for Life Science and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (2016-18). He is co-author and editor of the 2020 Conservatives book Britain Beyond Brexit.

The combination of Covid-19 and the Crash of 2008 have left this country facing the most serious crisis in our public finances since 1776. Unless we make the post-Brexit, post-Covid recovery a transformational renaissance of enterprise & innovation on a par with that unlocked by Thatcher Governments of the 1980s, we risk a decade of high debts, rising interest rates and slow growth.

We have a truly unique opportunity before us. As a science and innovation superpower, with the City of London now outside the EU’s rules for the first time in nearly fifty years, we can unlock a New Elizabethan era of growth – with Britain a world-leader in global commercialisation of science, technology and innovation. It is what our entrepreneurs have been crying out for. Now is the moment to make it happen.

That’s why I’m delighted to have been asked by the Prime Minister to help set up the new Taskforce for Innovation and Growth through Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) with Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers.

Reporting directly to the Prime Minister & the Chancellor’s Cabinet Committee on deregulation, and supported by a secretariat in the Cabinet Office, the Taskforce will consider and recommend “quick wins” to use our new regulatory sovereignty to unlock high growth sectors of the economy to drive post-Brexit post-Covid recovery.

Rest assured: there will also be no big report or a thousand pages of footnotes to wade through. We will be crowd-sourcing the best ideas from the business community and the entrepreneurs and innovators who are the engine of our economy.

The Prime Minister has asked me to bring my career experience in business starting & financing high growth bioscience technology companies as well as my experience as Minister in Health, BEIS and Transport leading our groundbreaking Industrial Strategy for Life Science which has paid such dividends this year.

The reforms I led in our Industrial Strategy – launching Genomics England, the Early Access to Medicines Scheme, MHRA and NICE reform, Accelerated Access procurement have been fundamental to our ability to lead the world in developing a Covid vaccine.

We now need to make Brexit & Covid the catalyst for bold reforms to unlock big UK opportunities for recovery & GlobalBritain across a range of high-growth sectors such as those I have worked on extensively as both entrepreneur and Minister:?

  • LifeScience: harnessing the potential of the NHS as a research engine for new medicines, unlocking digital health & innovative approaches to Accelerated Access, clinical trials & value-based pricing.
  • Nutraceuticals: health-promoting “superfoods”, cannabis medicines.
  • AgriTech: smart clean green twenty-first farming technology like the blight resistant potato banned by the EU.
  • CleanTech: new biofuels, Carbon Capture & Storage & digital “smart grids” to reward households & businesses for generating more and using less.
  • BioSecurity: harnessing the potential of Porton Down and UK vaccine science for plant, animal & human biosecurity.
  • Digital: removing barriers to UK digital leadership outside the EU GDPR framework.
  • Hydrogen: using the full power of Gov to lead in this key sector as we did in genomics.
  • Mobility: making the UK a global test-bed for new mobility technologies,

Before being elected to Parliament, I spent 15 years working in life sciences around the Cambridge cluster, financing innovation. I saw time and time again how the best British entrepreneurs and their companies struggled to build business to scale here in the UK.

So often we have invented the technologies of the future and failed to commercialise them effectively.

After several years working as the Government Life Science Adviser, I published my report for the Fresh Start Group on The EU impact on Life Sciences: Avoiding the Global Slow Lane.

Three years before Brexit, the report was the first to highlight the growing hostility of the EU to ‘biotech’ and the increasing tide of ‘anti- biotech’ legislation – driven by a combination of the German Green Party, Catholic anti-science and lowest commons denominator regulation by the “precautionary principle” which was having a damaging effect on the Bioscience Economy and risked condemning the EU – and by extension the UK – to the global slow lane in biotechnology.

The report set out how the genomic revolution was beginning to offer untold opportunities across medicine and agriculture to help generate huge economic, social and political dividends for mankind. Billions of people were being liberated from the scourge of insufficient food, medicine and energy. The main threat to that? The EU’s hostile regulatory framework.

This was seen clearly in numerous case studies. At the time, the EU’s hostility to GM led German-based BASF and major U.S firm Monsanto to announce their withdrawal from Europe in agricultural research and development. My report argued that unless something was done soon, other companies would follow suit, with dire consequences for the UK Life Science sector.

The report recommended a shift away from the increasingly widely used risk-based ‘precautionary Principle’ and greater freedoms around data protection, using public healthcare systems to help accelerate early access to medical innovations, and for the UK to be able to ‘go it alone’ in designing appropriate regulatory frameworks for GM crops.

The UK’s departure from the laws and requirements of the EU provides us with a once-in-a-generation chance to redesign and improve our approach.

This new Taskforce, therefore, is emphatically not another long-term Whitehall de-regulation ‘initiative’. Neither is this is about cutting workers’ or environmental rights that we rightly guaranteed in the 2019 election manifesto.

It is of vital importance that the UK maintains the high regulatory standards that we have consistently championed. In some of the fastest growing new sectors like Digital Health, Nutraceuticals and Autonomous Vehicle Tech, clear global regulatory standards are key to investment confidence. By setting the new global standards here in the UK we can play a key role in leading whole new sectors.

But we must think innovatively about supporting businesses to start and grow, and make the most of the cutting-edge technologies and sectors we nurture in our universities for global impact. For example, why don’t we use our freedom to pioneer new disease and drought- resistant crops, and use our aid budget and variable tariffs to help create new global markets for UK Technology Transfer?

We won’t unlock a new era of the UK as an Innovation Nation generating the technologies and companies of tomorrow with technocratic tinkering. We need bold leadership, clear commercial vision and reforms to support innovation and enterprise. The two go hand in hand. We won’t unlock an innovation economy without an enterprise society. So we will need to look at tax and regulatory incentives for high risk start/ups like the “New Deal for New Businesses” I proposed back in 2010 to drive recovery after the Crash.

This is a once-in-a-generation moment. Together we must seize it.