The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a series of weaknesses in the UK’s domestic manufacturing sector. Recent failings in the supply of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) have led to fierce criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic, with the UK having to appeal to other manufacturers – including Formula One teams – to make up the difference.
While the government has managed to survive these crises, it is likely they are now contemplating the public backlash they will experience if the UK fails to adequately supply effective treatments and vaccines as a result of a lack of domestic manufacturing capacity.
The UK has long favoured importing vital goods, such as medicines, rather than supply them domestically. The global nature of manufacturing has meant that companies have typically established themselves where costs are lower, where raw materials are readily available or where incentives have been offered. As a result, mass medicines and vaccines manufacturing is largely limited to the USA, China and India. The complex and time consuming process of vaccines manufacturing, coupled with the UK’s lack of a domestic manufacturing sector means that, as and when suitable COVID-19 therapies are ready for mass production, we will have to rely on other countries to secure supply. We shouldn’t be surprised if the UK isn’t top of the list for priority access.
If the UK wants rapid and sustainable access to vaccines and treatments it must look to build domestic manufacturing capability.
And looking beyond coronavirus to the future, it is also true that with the UK leaving the EU and global trade disputes continuing to flare up, there is likely to be an ongoing need to reduce our reliance on international trade in essential goods, such as medicines.
To this end, we know that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is drawing up plans to reduce the UK’s reliance on imports of vital supplies of medicines and other medical supplies from countries such as China. Codenamed ‘Project Defend’ this initiative will be vital for the UK if it wants to be one of the first countries to have widespread access to a vaccine and to protect its supply of key medicines in the future.
But there are wider benefits to be had from cultivating a UK manufacturing sector than just securing supply of medicines and vaccines. Through investing in domestic manufacturing, the government can help drive economic growth through encouraging greater inward investment from companies, creating high-skilled jobs, and growing the UK’s exports of medical supplies. This also presents a real opportunity for the government to showcase its ambition to level up the UK by encouraging investment outside of the South East and London.
Furthermore, while domestic manufacturing might be more expensive than imports, a key lesson from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be that quality and security of supply are as important factors as cost.
If the government is truly serious, they must outline a bold and long-term vision that seeks to develop a permanent manufacturing sector in the UK that is able to produce high-quality treatments and vaccines at scale.
But they must also realise that, to build this permanent manufacturing base, the UK will need to compete over the long-term with countries like China and India.
To encourage this investment the Government needs to provide competitive grants to companies to set up manufacturing sites, give preference to domestically manufactured products on the NHS (which could be facilitated outside of the EU), provide faster regulatory and reimbursement processes for treatments manufactured in the UK, and ensure investment in domestic supply is a factor that is taken into account in health technology assessments.
This would be an important signal that the UK is serious about building its domestic manufacturing sector and give confidence to companies that investing in the UK is a viable and long-term option.
If the UK isn’t ambitious in its approach, this investment will not come. This would not only risk the UK being a lower priority for coronavirus treatments and vaccines but, over the longer-term and unless global trade rebounds, also risk the UK experiencing regular supply disruption and stock shortages. The impact of this would be felt not only by the healthcare sector and the NHS, but ultimately by patients – who would be unable to access the medicines they need to help them live longer, healthier lives.
Leslie Galloway is chair of the Ethical Medicines Industry Group (EMIG)