On 12 December, UK voters are going to the polls to elect MPs and ultimately the next British government, meaning that campaigning is in full swing and party manifestos are beginning to be published.
Although Brexit dominates the three major parties’ pledges and manifestos, the National Health Service (NHS) and healthcare in general comes in a strong joint second alongside the environment and climate change.
In addition, to the Liberal Democrats, the Labour party and the Conservative party’s funding pledges for the NHS over the next five years and commitments to strengthening the NHS workforce and facilities, all three parties have also made some specific promises regarding pharma and drug research and development (R&D).
Commitments to life sciences research and innovation
Life sciences innovation and R&D is one of the focus areas of Conservative party investment in the next five years; the manifesto states “we will make the UK the leading global hub for life sciences after Brexit”.
These commitments will be supported by a focus on the UK continuing to attract “the best technology and science graduates” from the top global universities, and a reform of science funding.
The Conservatives’ manifesto emphasises the party’s record in health innovation from the NHS Long Term Plan, which was launched in January this year, and will be enshrined in law if the party gains a majority in Parliament in December.
Similarly, the Labour party have promised to focus on science, research and innovation across various industries, but particularly to tackle antibiotic resistance, as well as investing in artificial intelligence (AI) for medical uses.
The Liberal Democrats have also noted the importance of innovation and embracing new technologies – they have declared a goal of “doubling innovation spending across the economy” – but this commitment is not specific to healthcare or life sciences.
Both Labour and the Conservatives stressed the importance of genomics to medical research. The Conservatives’ focus is on continuing the work of the UK Biobank and Genomics England, as well as the newly launched Accelerating the Detection of Disease project.
Labour, meanwhile, has combined genomics and cell therapies and called for the NHS to be at the forefront of their development “so patients can benefit from new treatments for cancer and dementia, whilst ensuring the UK continues to lead in medical developments.” The party has also focused on the importance of using patient data for diagnosis and research purposes, while ensuring it is adequately protected so it cannot be unfairly exploited by tech or pharma companies.
Drug development pledges for certain indications
The three parties have all singled out particular therapeutic areas, conditions and indications where they will encourage more and better drug R&D.
For the Liberal Democrats, this is medical cannabis. The party’s manifesto states: “Our approach will support and encourage more clinical trials of cannabis for medicinal use to establish a clear evidence base. In the meantime, we will allow those who feel that cannabis helps to manage their pain to do so without fear of criminal prosecution.”
“Clinically appropriate prescription of medical cannabis” is also a priority for Labour, as well as the need for development of gene therapies for cancer and dementia specifically.
The Conservative party also focused specifically on curing dementia, writing: “We will make finding a cure one of our Government’s biggest collective priorities – one of the ‘grand challenges’ that will define our future along with the impact of climate change or artificial intelligence”.
The party also commented on the need to extend the remit of the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE)’s Cancer Drugs Fund to include other indications, such as autoimmune conditions.
Tackling drug prices in the UK
Reforming drug prices is a huge priority of the Labour party. It has called for the NHS to be at the forefront of drug development and for the establishment of a national generics company to stop “patients [being] held to ransom by corporations charging extortionate prices for life-saving drugs. If fair prices are rejected for patented drugs we will use the Patents Act provisions, compulsory licences and research exemptions to secure access to generic versions.”
Labour’s reimbursement approach would follow a “medical innovation model, ensuring rewards and incentives match the areas of greatest health need.”
The Labour manifesto explicitly cites the example of Vertex and NHS England’s years of failed negotiations over pricing cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi and how patients took matters into their own hands to gain access to a generic version from Argentina.
The party also intends to use these publicly-development medicines for the benefit of all, saying “In the long term, [we will] ensure that all medicines developed with the support of UK taxpayer money are accessible to people in the Global South.” To further improve global access to medicines, Labour also wants to promote fairer international patent regimes and improve the transparency of drug prices.
Continuing on from this, the manifesto states: “We will ensure that all parts of the NHS, the treatment of patients, the employment of staff and medicine pricing are all fully excluded and protected from any international trade deals.” This is in response to accusations against the Conservative party and its leader Boris Johnson that access to NHS would be central to any upcoming trade deal with the US, as result of comments from US President Donald Trump.
In response, the Tory manifesto emphasises: “When we are negotiating trade deals, the NHS will not be on the table. The price the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table. The services the NHS provides will not be on the table.”
The Liberal Democrats note that their central aim of stopping Brexit means that US companies will not have access to the NHS or the UK’s drug market. It also focused on access to medicines saying the party would ensure “pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV prevention is fully available to all who need it on the NHS”. Access to PrEP and sexual health services is also a priority of the Labour party in its manifesto.
Aligning mental health with physical health
Beyond their central aim of stopping Brexit, the Liberal Democrats list among their other top four commitments the goal of transforming mental health services across the UK. The manifesto states: “We will transform our mental health service by treating it with the same urgency as physical health.”
The party promises to invest £11bn in mental health “to expand access to therapies and increase the number of psychiatrists and specialist mental health practitioners”.
Mental health is an issue where there is a surprising alignment among the three major parties. Labour has pledged £1bn to bring mental healthcare in line with physical healthcare and the Conservatives want to mental health to be treated with the “same urgency” as physical health and will introduce laws so individuals have more control over their treatment.