George Freeman: Just the man for a matter of life and death

The UK’s first-ever minister for life sciences tells Margareta Pagano about his new role at the departments of business and health, transforming how the UK develops and finances medicine

There was one new job in David Cameron’s reshuffle last week that everybody has overlooked yet may prove to be the most far-reaching of the PM’s catwalk manoeuvres – a minister for life sciences.

It’s also the first role of its kind created by any government anywhere in the world. What’s more, the MP who got the job – George Freeman – actually knows what he’s talking about, having worked in the life sciences and healthcare industry for most of his career and helped put together the Coalition Government’s Strategy for UK Life Sciences. Intelligent design, you could say.

It’s a big brief too – to accelerate the UK’s leadership in 21st-century medicine, help improve the nation’s healthcare and patient treatments, speed up the adoption by the NHS of state-of the art medical advances, and ensure we are the best place in the world for foreign companies to invest in the life sciences industry. Not much then.

I caught up with Mr Freeman soon after his promotion and he had already packed in a dozen or so Whitehall meetings with his teams at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Health; he reports to both so will have two turns at the despatch box and two boxes. He’s got Lord Heseltine’s old office and already has a nickname – High Tech Hezza. “Without the mane,” he laughs.

He knows there isn’t much time to get the job under way in earnest: “With just over nine months until the election, and if you strip out recess, I’ve told the teams we have only a few months to show the importance of this agenda in areas like genomics, early access to medicines, and the power of personalised modern healthcare in helping to prevent and treat diseases for us and future generations.

“The UK is already a world-class leader in healthcare technology. But, with increased pressures due to an ageing society, we need to embrace 21st-century healthcare, namely new technology and patient empowerment. We need to move away from thinking of healthcare as something ‘done to us’ by government, but something we have power over ourselves. Personalised health is the way of the future.”

The guts of the matter are this, he says. “The landscape of healthcare is fundamentally changing. Firstly, only using healthy mice and rats to find cures for ill humans is an old-fashioned model. Today is all about patients. Secondly, with the future of the Big Pharma model increasingly being called into question, the bio-medical industry is creating cutting-edge devices, diagnostics and treatments all the time, but they are not being adopted quickly enough. Some take 10 years to get into the NHS.

“With the advances in genomics, finding cures for diseases will increasingly come from clinicians working much closer with patient data. We will see more personalised drugs, more devices using diagnostics and informatics. This will transform the way healthcare is delivered.”

Mr Freeman says new drugs, devices and diagnostics will come from a mix of specialist charities, small biomedical start-ups and spin-outs, patient advocacy groups and charitable foundations like those run by Bill Gates. This is a new world and it is challenging old models. “Procurement and commissioning need updating. The NHS, which was designed to treat acute illnesses, now treats chronic diseases. In recent years it has arguably struggled to be a fast enough catalyst for innovation.”

He’s got masses of ideas for making the changes, ranging from new ways of getting new treatments into hospitals more quickly, to bringing in the private sector to collaborate on property-conversion funds; these would find new uses for sites like Pfizer’s old research and development centre in Sandwich, Kent, for the bio-sciences industry. More help with funding for mid-sized companies is another aim. “I don’t believe there is as big a funding gap for start-ups as people say. Instead of government putting £1bn into start-ups, it’s far better if we create the right landscape for innovation to get new money.”

Unlike so many politicians, apart perhaps from Hezza, Mr Freeman walked the walk during his 15-year career working mainly in the “Cambridge cluster” – setting up 15 high-growth start-ups, raising around £250m of new money, and helping put together partnerships between hospitals, universities and charities.

And unlike so many businessmen who make the switch to politics, he has taken to Westminster like a duck to water. His baptism came shortly after becoming the Tory MP for Mid-Norfolk in 2010, when Pfizer stunned the Government with its decision to close the Sandwich centre with the loss of 2,400 jobs.

Knowing just how fast the pharmaceuticals industry was changing, he was on hand to give his insight and in 2011 was made an adviser on the sector. He then worked on the Strategy for UK Life Sciences – with landmark measures, like the Biomedical Catalyst Fund and Patent Box, that have brought over £2bn of new investment into the sector, as well as last year’s UK Strategy for Agricultural Technologies.

Having politics in the genes has helped prepare him too. William Gladstone, four-times Liberal prime minister, was his great, great, great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first British female Conservative MP, was his great aunt.

Even more potent than his DNA was a school trip to the House of Commons when he was 12: “I remember entering the chamber, as the child of a broken and unhappy home, and being totally blown away by the idea that whoever and wherever you are, there is a place where the nation takes responsibility for its affairs and looks after its people.”

Four decades later and Mr Freeman is in the thick of it himself. One of the first tests of his influence would be if Pfizer of the US returned with a bid for its British pharmaceutical rival AstraZeneca later this year, as the City expects. (Mr Freeman was the one who argued that Pfizer should be made to promise a 10-year agreement to protect UK research and jobs as a condition for any successful bid.)

 “Much of the criticism of Pfizer’s bid ...  was about tax inversion [changing the country of domicile to pay less corporation tax]. But the key question of the future will be whether we are the best place in the world for 21st-century healthcare, rather than the narrower question of ownership. While the UK’s competitive tax rates and the Patent Box are attractive incentives, this is far from the only reason these companies want to be here.”

“They come because of our fantastic research base and our investment in genomics, early access to medicines and the Catalyst Fund. We already have a massive headstart and I’m determined to ensure we are the global pioneer in 21st- century healthcare. It’s what makes this new job so exciting.” Who knows, as well as exciting, the role may yet be the most innovative of the PM’s legacy.

Life in Westminster: My typical week

“I start the day at 6am with a pint of tea and go through urgent constituency and Westminster reading and correspondence. A typical Westminster day consists of five to ten meetings, punctuated by Commons votes. I try to spend an hour in my office each day with my staff to go through stuff, but often don’t get to sit at my desk till the evening. I normally leave the building at 10pm-11pm.

Friday and Saturday are constituency days: on a Friday I normally have two or three visits [to a local school or charity or business], a two-hour surgery of around 10 to 15-minute sessions helping constituents with difficult problems, and a lot of letter signing, diary and local campaign planning with my secretary, often with a speaking engagement in the evening. Sundays I keep religiously for my young family – increasingly driving my son to cricket or rugby matches.”

Rise to the top: The personal file

Name George Freeman

Date of birth 12 July 1967

Education Radley College; Girton College, Cambridge

Career National Farmers’ Union, parliamentary officer;  Amedis Pharmaceuticals, chief executive; 4D Biomedical, founder; adviser to the Norwich Research Park venture fund

Parliamentary career:

2010 Conservative MP for Mid-Norfolk. Founder of the 2020 Conservatives group 

2011 Government adviser on life sciences

2014 Minister for life sciences

Family Married to Eleanor with two children, Ruby and Frank

Favourite book The Discoverers (Daniel Boorstin)

Favourite film The Third Man

Current car beaten-up old Mercedes estate

Favourite car Citroën DS (the French president’s car in The Day of the Jackal)

Holiday The north Norfolk coast – dinghy sailing, mackerel fishing from an 18ft lugger, and swimming with seals

Favourite music Bob Dylan

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