On 4 July 2024, the people of the UK took to the polls and made their voice heard, voting for a new Labour government and stripping the Conservative party of its 14-year majority.

Sir Kier Starmer’s party has taken control of parliament having taken 410 seats, compared to the Conservative Party’s 117 seats, a loss of 247 seats from the 2019 election.

A new government means changes in industry investment, with the National Health Service (NHS) being a huge part of the election campaign for all parties.

The Labour Party and Wes Streeting, who is likely to be appointed as Health Minister, have pledged to invest in various areas of the NHS, including commercial clinical trials.

Speaking on Channel 4’s Election Night Show, Streeting spoke about how the UK life science and medtech sectors will be an important support network for the NHS, saying that by marrying together industry and service, “the sky is the limit”.

The Association for the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) reports that the number of commercial clinical trials in the UK fell from 667 initiated trials in 2017, decreasing by 34% in 2020. Lord James O’Shaughnessy was asked to write a review on the state of the UK clinical trials industry, which found that the country had dropped from fourth to tenth globally in clinical trial initiation. This led to apprehension from sponsors about conducting trials in the UK in a post-Brexit world.

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A decline in clinical trials in the NHS not only impacts the country’s contribution to development on a global scale but also directly impacts financing for the service. In 2020/2021, the ABPI reports the NHS lost £447m in revenue due to a drop in commercial clinical trial activity due to the pandemic.

The Labour manifesto pledges that the party will make the trial space more competitive, efficient and accessible.

The manifesto says it will reduce trial set-up times by standardising the process and minimising the number of contracts and agreements required to set trials up in the UK.

The party also hopes that it can make trials more accessible by setting up sites in community settings and GP practices.

Partner at UK-based law firm Freeths, Claus Andersen, who specialises in the life sciences and technology sector, said that the Labour manifesto looks good on the surface but is only effective if it is implemented.

“It’s interesting to see how Labour in their manifesto in some of the commentary leading up to the election has been focusing on developing the clinical trial space. It goes, to some extent, hand-in-hand with the wider push to make the NHS more efficient,” Andersen said.

“The devil will be in the detail in that we obviously need to see what is actually implemented from the manifesto to actual legislation, but it does look as if they will be focusing quite significantly on streamlining the clinical trials process and the ability to get patients signed up to trials.”

The manifesto goes on to say that the party will use data-led recruitment through current infrastructures such as the NHS app. The party hopes to speed up recruitment by making patients more aware of research in which they are eligible to be enrolled.

Currently, the NHS app does redirect patients to a page where they can sign up to be involved in research if they have an interest.

The party also hopes to provide access to patients from across the country and not make clinical research a postcode lottery. They also pledge to improve the diversity of patients enrolled in clinical trials to make it more representative of the patient population who will use the drug post-market.

The party also claims that it will increase the workforce with 10,000 nurses and 7,500 doctors to help support those who want to be involved in clinical research. Those workers who wish to be involved in research will receive training about how they can support clinical trials and recruit patients.

Finally, the party hopes that improving the amount of research conducted by the NHS will help to retain staff.

“It is not only a matter of pay, but it’s also about terms. I believe that by involving more people in clinical research, you can add additional skills so it can be used as a useful recruitment tool,” Andersen added.

“For those who are more inclined to get involved in academic research, I think that increasing access to that could be quite useful in staff retention. It won’t of course cancel out the staff demand for higher pay so that still needs to be addressed.”

Responding to the Labour manifesto after it was released, the ABPI says the manifesto will have strong industry support and that it has long argued for the need to make running trials with the NHS more efficient and accessible, speeding up recruitment and giving more people a chance to participate in clinical trials and access the innovative treatments they offer. It is hoped that sponsors may feel more confident in the UK’s infrastructure to run clinical trials if these changes are implemented.

ABPI chief executive Richard Torbett said: “During its campaign, Labour was right to single out the UK’s life sciences sector as a critical partner for their plans to deliver positive change and economic growth. A strong industry-government partnership will be vital to ensure that we continue to discover breakthrough medical innovation in the UK and ensure NHS patients are among the first people in the world to benefit from the latest medicines and vaccines.

“The new government now needs to hit the ground running and rapidly set out a clear, detailed plan for what the government will do in the coming weeks and years to address persistent inequalities in access to medicines and vaccines, as well as unlock our sector’s true growth potential.”

“If sponsors can see a change in the approach and see that it’s getting easier to get clinical trials off the ground, then I see no reason why they shouldn’t come back,” Andersen explains.

“In terms of licensing UK is still a very strong nation and is part of the Horizon Europe programme. In the UK you have some of the biggest life science facilities in Oxford, Cambridge, and London. A general change in about the business climate as well will have an impact as businesses need to see a stability and some sort of certainty and predictability and that things are actually being carried out and not just said in a manifesto.”

Charlotte Harpin, Partner in the health and life sciences team at UK and Ireland law firm Browne Jacobson, said: “Commitments to speeding up the clinical trials process by embracing technology and standardising documentation will be welcomed by the life sciences industry and should help to attract new investment and market entrants.

“With the current system being sometimes difficult to navigate, particularly for new entrants to the clinical trials landscape, simplification appears to be a sensible policy. However, while there are some potential quick fixes that could be implemented – for instance, enabling clinical trial sign-up via the NHS app – the development of standardarised contract documentation and further streamlined governance will likely take longer. Establishing a clear responsibility for taking this forward will be key in order to realise these ambitions quickly.”