NHS European Office

Uncertainties after the Brexit vote: what implications for NHS research? | Elisabetta Zanon

Elisabetta Zanon

While uncertainty abounds over the implications of Brexit on NHS research, the head of the NHS European Office sheds light on the certainties so far and what next for UK science and research.

Since the UK’s ‘Brexit’ vote, a fog of uncertainty has descended over NHS organisations concerning their ability to continue to participate in the EU’s Research and Innovation Programme. 

This programme, called Horizon 2020, has an overall budget of over €70 billion, with €7.5 billion specifically dedicated to health research and innovation from 2014 to 2020. It offers significant opportunities to NHS organisations to source funding for the use of innovation therapies and tools for better patient outcomes.

While it is clear that EU-funded projects that are currently being implemented will not be affected, UK organisations up and down the country have been under serious pressure from EU project partners to leave the bids that are under preparation.   

This reluctance to include UK organisations in bids is unsurprising. The bids take months to prepare and require a significant resource commitment, particularly from the coordinator of the project. The bids will be assessed in a highly competitive environment, where only the best and most excellent projects stand a chance of being funded. 

Why take the risk of working with a UK organisation when they may hinder the chances of a project being successful? If the UK leaves the EU before the project contract is approved and signed, what would be the legal implications for the project? 

Helpfully, both the UK government and European Commission have issued statements to reassure participants that UK participation is still valid. On 28 June, the UK government published a statement clarifying that there would be no immediate impact on UK organisations applying for funding. The following week, the European Commission formally confirmed that UK organisations can still participate and receive funding from Horizon 2020.

Despite these reassurances, we could, however, expect a decline in the UK’s – and NHS’s – involvement in the next calls for projects under this programme, as in a climate of uncertainty on the future UK-EU relationship, researchers may take decisions on what might happen and plan on a worst-case scenario.

The NHS’s participation in EU collaborative research could also be jeopardised by uncertainty on whether the UK will, in the future, adhere to (or not) the EU regulatory framework on the authorisation and conduct of clinical trials. The EU has legislative competence in this area, as clinical studies to approve new treatments are often conducted in multiple sites across a number of European countries and, therefore, there is a need for harmonisation at EU level. 

A new EU Clinical Trials Regulation is due to be enacted next year, or the following, to improve rules in this area. In particular, it seeks to streamline the procedures to assess and authorise new clinical studies, removing duplications and reducing delays for launching clinical trials.

Importantly, these new EU rules will introduce a number of flexibilities and simplifications which will make it easier for NHS trusts to participate in multinational clinical trials, as outlined in our briefing The new EU Clinical Trials Regulation: how NHS research and patients will benefit.

As an example of the practical impact of these positive changes, it would soon be possible to launch a clinical trial with patients in several different countries through the submission of a single application dossier, instead of having to apply separately in each of the countries involved. This is a significant change and will certainly speed up the time for launching multi-country clinical trials, such as those looking into treatments for rare diseases which, by their very nature, require the participation of patients from several different countries.

It will be crucial for the NHS that these positive changes not be lost because of Brexit and that any new relationship with the EU allow us to grasp the benefits this new EU regulation will bring to the NHS and our patients.

Research is an essential component of our healthcare system and collaboration with EU researchers has helped us to develop new treatments, adopt innovation more quickly, and improve the quality of healthcare we provide to our patients. It has also facilitated enrolment of NHS patients in clinical studies, allowing them to access innovative life-saving treatments when no other medical option was available to them.

The future collaboration between the UK and the EU on science and research will be part of the forthcoming UK government negotiations on the future relationship with the EU. It will be crucial for the NHS to inform the UK negotiating position in this area to ensure that NHS organisations, and more importantly, the patients they serve, do not miss out on the opportunities offered by collaborative research with European partners.

Elisabetta Zanon is director of the NHS European Office, part of the NHS Confederation. Follow the organisation on Twitter @NHSConfed_EU

Find out more

Discover more about Horizon 2020, clinical trials and the implications of Brexit on health and care services on the NHS European Office website.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has invited written submissions on leaving the EU and implications and opportunities for science and research.

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