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21 November 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:32pm

The loss of the European Medicines Agency due to Brexit could hinder access to life-saving drugs

Not to mention what it will do to investment, jobs and soft power.

By Rory Palmer

This week, the EU decided that the European Medicines Agency headquarters will be relocated from London to Amsterdam.

The Dutch capital beat 18 other member states in an EU council vote to win the right to host the agency, as EU bodies begin to leave UK soil post-Brexit. This development carries serious consequences, and also highlights how damaging Brexit will be to the UK’s global standing.

These consequences are firstly economic. The relocation will lead to a loss of investment from pharmaceutical companies, who cite proximity to the agency as a key reason in choosing London for their EU bases. It will also mean losing the economic boost the EMA gives the London hospitality and service sectors (EMA activity currently generates demand for 350 hotels per night, five days a week in order to host its 40,000 visiting guest experts).

The relocation will also harm UK academia. With the EMA’s departure, London loses its status as the focal point for European medical research and technology, with all the positive impact this has brought in terms of collaboration with local universities and institutes. And there is also the human impact this decision will have. Some 900 staff who have built their homes and lives in our capital are now having to choose between relocating to another country, opting for an elaborate and impractical commuting arrangement, or finding another job.

To see this agency leave the UK, together with all the investment, jobs and soft power that its presence here supports, represents a wilful neglect of the government’s responsibility to grow our economy and maintain our global standing. This is a clear example of the government failing to secure a Brexit that safeguards jobs, moreover it gives a clear signal of the hard Brexit favoured by some at Theresa May’s cabinet table.

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Not only will the EMA’s departure be a massive blow to the UK’s economy, global standing and patient services, but it may also prompt an EU-wide public health crisis due to the disruption caused to the agency’s work. Today’s announcement should serve as an urgent wake-up call that, if the government continues on the crash course it has set itself on, UK patients may soon find themselves cut off from accessing potentially life-saving drugs.

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We are in this situation largely because of the Tory government’s incompetence in setting out whether or not the UK will continue to be a part of the EMA post-2019. On the eve of the referendum, David Davis said that the UK would “probably” remain a member. More recently, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has diluted this, saying that he wants to see the UK to continue to “work closely” with the EMA.

As with most aspects of the Brexit process so far, it seems that May’s government has simply not thought carefully enough about a serious and important question, one that it critical for UK patients whose health relies on regular access to EU-licensed drugs.

Failure to reach a sensible agreement would cause serious disruption to patients’ continued access to existing and new medicines, with a recent estimate that a bad Brexit could mean UK patients end up waiting six to 12 months longer than those in EU states for new, potentially life-saving drugs.

One reason for this is that the EMA currently undertakes a significant proportion of the work required for licensing new drugs in the UK. Outside EMA membership, our national body, the Medical Health Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will need to urgently find the resources to carry out 25 per cent more licensing of new drugs come March 2019 – a recipe for potential backlogs and delays.

Future difficulties would be further compounded because a non-EMA affiliated Britain will represent a much smaller share of the pharmaceutical market. This will put the UK at the back of the queue when the industry chooses where it will apply for licensing for new drugs.

The question of the future UK-EMA relationship also means we do not yet know whether the UK will be able to continue participating in EU clinical trials, whose application process operates through the EMA. These cross-border trials are critically important for paediatric cancers and other rare diseases because there are usually not enough cases in one country to make a national trial viable. There is nothing to cheer in the idea of the UK turning its back on these EU-wide clinical trials which help drive life-saving medical developments.

Today’s announcement of a major EU agency planning to leave the UK is the reality of Brexit. The UK is surrendering its position as a global hub for knowledge industries, research and science. Quite how any of this represents “taking back control” is something only those who advocated this folly can tell us. This week it has become starkly clear, once again, that Brexit is going to be an extremely bitter pill to swallow.

Rory Palmer is Labour MEP for the East Midlands and the European parliamentary Labour Party’s health spokesperson