Coronavirus: Brexit will make it harder to fight future pandemics, Jeremy Hunt warns

Head of Commons health committee also raises alarm over UK missing out on benefits of new clinical trials

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 31 March 2020 17:08 BST
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Coronavirus in numbers

Brexit will make it harder to fight future pandemics and reap the benefits of new clinical trials in the EU, Jeremy Hunt is warning.

The current proposals for the UK’s full divorce will have “a significant impact on health and social care”, a letter sent by the head of the Commons health committee states.

In particular, it criticises a failure to ensure the NHS can continue to obtain human parts for research or transplants, as well as cooperate on “pandemic management” and on the licensing of new medicines.

Joint working to protect imports of medical isotopes – used in the treatment of cancer – and on fighting antimicrobial resistance will also be “vital”, it warns.

The list has been drawn up as Boris Johnson resists pressure to extend the post-Brexit transition period, because of the coronavirus pandemic – risking a crash-out with no deal at the end of the year.

The committee was asked to evaluate the EU’s negotiating mandate, concluding there are “significant omissions regarding health and social care”.

It has highlighted:

* No plans for “substances of human origin” – for example blood, organs, tissues and cells – with “potential risks on access to these substances for the NHS”.

* No plans for the UK to take part in “European Reference Networks” – where EU countries share information on combating complex or rare diseases or conditions.

* No plans for cooperation on licensing products, including through the European Medicines Agency – which was based in the UK until Brexit.

* No plans for data-sharing in key areas including clinical trials and pandemics.

“The UK would be excluded from access to the new clinical trials portal being implemented,” Mr Hunt writes, adding: “Continued access would ensure patients have access to health innovations under development.”

And his letter adds: “The early warning and response mechanism (EWRS) is a valuable tool for cooperation, and highly relevant during the current coronavirus pandemic”.

The letter makes no direct criticism of the UK government, because the committee was asked to comment on the EU’s negotiating mandate, rather than London’s.

However, it follows Downing Street insisting the UK would leave the EWRS at the end of the year – reportedly against department of health pleading – because “we have left the European Union”.

Significantly, Mr Hunt’s letter also warns of a “knowledge gap” unless parliament’s ability to scrutinise the details of Brexit are beefed up – after the government ripped up oversight promises.

And it states: “There is substantial public concern around the NHS and health more generally in relation to our trade agreements.

“We propose that the UK should seek to make a shared commitment to protecting health and national health systems part of these negotiations, in order to defuse tensions on this issue for the future.”

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