After three years of dedicated negotiations, the UK and EU agreed a trade deal on 24 December 2020. The deal took effect on the 1st of January this year.
Since the referendum in 2016, the BHF has been working hard to make sure that our researchers can still access EU funding streams and travel overseas to work, and that people living with heart and circulatory disease in the UK are able to access treatments and clinical trials.
This blog looks at what we know from the deal so far.
Will UK researchers still have access to EU funding for research?
UK researchers have benefited greatly from the EU’s recent research and innovation programmes. Between 2014 and 2020, UK researchers received over €7 billion from the ‘Horizon 2020’ programme, which provided funding for researchers right across the EU. In fact, the UK received 12.1% of all the funds awarded, second only to Germany.
Non-EU countries have also been able to take part in these programmes as ‘associate members’ and we’ve long been calling for the UK to agree to this type of membership post-Brexit. However, being part of these programmes comes with a cost and, historically, UK researchers have received more from the programme than the Government pays in (as the former is based on quality of research proposals and the latter on the size of the UK’s economy).
With the EU insistent that non-member states should not make a net profit from the programme, and the UK reluctant to substantially increase its contributions, there were concerns that the two sides would not be able to agree on the UK joining the next version of the programme, ‘Horizon Europe’.
It was very reassuring that despite these worries, an agreement for the UK to join the programme featured in the Christmas Eve trade deal. The deal introduced conditions to prevent the UK from paying too much into the programme compared to what UK researchers receive from it, and vice versa.
This was one of the BHF’s key priorities for the trade deal. Horizon Europe is set to allocate almost €100 billion to researchers over the next seven years. The diversity of these funding opportunities, as well as UK researchers’ continued access to invaluable networks and research infrastructure, will help to provide stability to the UK’s research base.
However, there remains uncertainty on whether support for the programme will affect existing domestic science budgets. The BHF is seeking to ensure that the Government allocates new funding to the programme, rather than repurposing the £14.6 billion for research that the Government has allocated for 2021/22.
Want to find out more? We signed a joint statement to help negotiators reach a deal and highlight the importance of EU research funding.
Will EU researchers still be able to live and work in the UK?
From the 1st of January, the Government introduced a new points-based immigration system that treats EU and non-EU citizens seeking a work visa equally. Under the new points-based system, most people wanting to live and work in the UK will have to take a language test and reach a certain salary threshold to receive a visa.
However, in order to encourage international researchers to work in the UK, the Government introduced a new Global Talent Visa (GTV) in February last year. This visa route makes it easier for researchers, their teams (including technicians who support research) and families to receive work visas. All they need is for their name to be included in a successful grant application from an endorsed funder – the BHF is on this list along with most major research funders.
From a 2018 survey of BHF researchers, we know that researchers’ ability to bring their families with them is a key factor when considering whether to take up a research post in the UK, so we are pleased that these important terms were included in the new GTV, which provides a favourable route for researchers looking to work in the UK.
Since the new scheme was introduced, we’ve been working with other UK funders to ensure that the expensive cost of obtaining the visa is lowered. The average upfront cost of a visa to the researcher and their employer combined is just over £8k, that’s 540% higher than the average cost in other leading scientific nations. There are many factors drawing researchers to the UK, including its world-leading research institutions and cutting-edge infrastructure, but this expensive visa cost may have an impact on the UK’s ability to attract global talent.
Will UK patients still be able to take part in EU clinical trials and access new medicines?
As a member of the European Union, our medicines and clinical trials were regulated by EU law, through the European Medicines Agency. These laws allowed for the rapid approval of new medicines (through mutual recognition agreements) and allowed the UK to take part in clinical trials that were being led right across the EU. Clinical trials are of vital importance to patients, providing crucial evidence that diagnostic tests or treatments are safe and effective, and accelerating their approval and ‘route to market’ for wider patient benefit.
One of our priorities since discussions began on a UK-EU trade deal has been to ensure that heart and circulatory disease patients would still be able to access vital new medicines and benefit from clinical trials.
To achieve this, we’ve been calling for an aligned regulatory framework between the UK and EU on both medicines and clinical trials. That may sound complex, but this just means both sides recognising standards for medicines and medical devices and using the same definition of a ‘clinical trial’ as even a simple regulatory divergence could be a barrier to collaboration.
In the trade deal, there aren’t any changes to the existing clinical trial environment, although some questions have arisen over bureaucratic hurdles that may hinder collaboration, particularly the need for a legal representative based in the EU for UK-led trials that span EU countries. The UK is also still waiting on an EU decision over whether its data protection regulations are sufficient which is important to ensure a flow of data between the two parties.
Medicines regulation will be undertaken by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK, the body which has recently been overseeing the approval of Covid-19 vaccines. The deal includes measures to ensure ‘regulatory cooperation’ and recognise each other’s medicine quality standards, which should minimise any threats to medicine supply. The UK Government has also set up a fast-track approval process for new drugs, which should speed up the process for bringing drugs to market.
We’ll continue to work with the Government to ensure that people living with heart and circulatory diseases can still access clinical trials and get the medical supplies they need.
Can we stop talking about the UK-EU relationship now?
This trade deal provides much needed clarity on all the above issues, but there’s a lot still being discussed. For example, we’re still unsure where funding for the UK’s association to Horizon Europe will come from, while it remains to be seen how long regulatory alignment in clinical trials between the two parties can be maintained.
— to www.bhf.org.uk