Pfizer research centre closure 'worrying'

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Drugs giant Pfizer's decision to close its leading UK research centre is "hugely worrying" for Britain, shadow business secretary John Denham has warned.

The US group said it was shutting its renowned research and development (R&D) facility at Sandwich, Kent, and would make the majority of the site's 2,400 staff redundant over the next 18 months to two years.

Medical experts said the move was "devastating" for British science, coming as the latest in a series of UK R&D job cuts as the industry moves to slash costs.

The Royal Society of Chemistry said the science sector was witnessing the "haemorrhaging of the lifeblood of the British pharmaceuticals industry".

Trade union Unite reacted with dismay at Pfizer's decision, which it said will see the withdrawal of Sandwich's biggest employer.

Pfizer has a history at Sandwich dating back more than 50 years and the Kent R&D site lays claim to some of the world's biggest medical discoveries, including blockbuster drug Viagra.

Mr Denham told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It's a hugely worrying decision. This is one of those industries where we should aim to be world-beating in the years to come.

"It looks as though the Government haven't been involved as players. This is a warning about how vulnerable we are."

Business Secretary Vince Cable has said Pfizer's decision was "extremely disappointing" and confirmed he was forming a taskforce to mitigate the impact on local jobs.

He is also due to meet Pfizer and other drugs companies to look at continuing R&D activities at the Sandwich site.

"This country is an attractive location for the life sciences industry and with R&D tax credits and our plans to introduce a Patent Box, the Government is committed to ensuring the UK is the destination of choice for investment, research and growth," he added.

The Sandwich site is the European hub of Pfizer's global R&D division, but has already been hit with redundancies in recent years and Pfizer closed its manufacturing operations at the site in 2007.

Science minister David Willetts told Today: "It (Pfizer's decision) wasn't because of some problems with the British domestic regime.

"This Pfizer decision tells us something about Pfizer's own corporate restructuring. Pfizer's decision was based partly on their own corporate priorities."

He added: "Pfizer are going to work with us to see if we can find alternative uses for this site.

"Pfizer have made it clear it's not because of concerns about the strength of British science."

But Mr Willetts went on: "We are absolutely looking at anything else we can do to make sure we remain world leaders here."

Roger Gale, Conservative MP for Thanet North in Kent, said virtually every family in east Kent will be affected by the closure.

He told BBC Radio Kent: "It's a fantastic operation but they are cutting their research budget worldwide by 1.25 billion dollars and that means that Pfizer goes in Sandwich, it goes in Germany, some of it is going in America, and some of it is going in Canada, so we are not alone in this.

"But for every family in east Kent almost, and my own is no exception in this, we are going to be very, very seriously affected by this."

Laura Sandys, Conservative MP for South Thanet in Kent, said she was arranging a meeting with the senior team at Pfizer.

The company has given her a commitment that it will play an "active part" in supporting the local community over the next two years.

She said: "We have 24 months to put in place a programme of re-investment and to ensure that this prime location becomes the home of new businesses into the future.

"We are committed to marketing the huge strategic benefits of the facility. It is a purpose-built research and development facility with impressive buildings, superb surrounding infrastructure, and close proximity to Europe.

"In addition, we have some superb expertise and skills in Sandwich that are attractive to any investor considering taking advantage of the facility in Sandwich.

"With some of the highest-calibre research scientists in the country positioned on the edge of England's best preserved medieval town, I am hopeful that the facility will be put to productive economic use in the near future."