27/03/2017 07:59 BST | Updated 28/03/2018 06:12 BST

The Government Is Failing On Access To New Medicines

Photography by ZhangXun via Getty Images

While it did not grab as many headlines as Brexit, the Government's screeching u-turn on National Insurance or George Osborne's multi-tasking; last week the Conservatives voted down a House of Lords amendment, which would have seen more patients able to access life-saving innovative medicines without delay. This again highlights the failure of Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May to stand up for NHS patients, as well as the short-sighted, cost driven nature of their approach to health and social care.

The proposed changes to the Government's Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill, which received widespread support in the Lords, would have ensured that patients have rapid access to medicines approved through a NICE technology appraisal. However, sadly the Conservatives refused to back was an entirely constructive and uncontroversial amendment.

Through both their failure to back this amendment and their recent changes to NICE, which could further delay access to new medicines, the Government is presiding over a system which leaves increasing numbers of patients in the heart-breaking situation of being unable to obtain innovative treatments which could save or extend their lives. It is also worth pointing out that this directly breaks the Conservative party's 2015 manifesto promise to speed up the introduction of cost-effective medicines into the NHS.

The changes apply to any drugs that are expected to cost £20m or more in any of the first three years of their rollout across the NHS. As well as hitting more expensive, innovative treatments used by a small number of people for cancer and other illnesses, this also could apply to cheaper drugs that will be used by hundreds of thousands of people.

It is hard to imagine the distress and agony that this causes to patients and their families. It is also little surprise that crowd-funding websites are reporting an exponential increase in the number of people raising funds for medical treatments after feeling that they have been failed by the NHS.

In addition to the impact on patients, the approach of this Government could also impact more widely on the economy. The UK is home to thousands of life sciences companies and continues to have the largest pipeline of new medical discoveries anywhere in Europe. However, while we are rightly proud of this, the fruits of this innovation are increasingly being enjoyed by patients in other parts of the world long before NHS patients are able to benefit.

For every 100 European patients who can access new medicines in the first year that they are available, just 15 UK patients have the same access. Meanwhile, barely a week goes by without another example of crude rationing of treatments by Clinical Commissioning Groups being reported.

The likely transfer of the European Medicines Agency out of the country following Brexit already raises serious questions about the future of the life sciences industry in the UK. The fact that up to 20 European countries are already queueing up in efforts to attract it to their shores demonstrates clearly the positive impact that it has on inward investment.

When we consider this alongside the growing gap between the UK's record on developing new drugs and the ability of NHS patients to access them, it is clear to see why concern is spreading that our status as a world leader in the development of medicines is under threat.

The Government's approach represents the worst of all worlds - it completely fails NHS patients in efforts to drive down costs, but at the same time puts at risk the jobs of tens of thousands of workers in the pharmaceutical industry, in predominantly high-skilled and well paid jobs

Health Ministers recently confirmed that £1.24 billion has been returned to the Government through rebates from the industry, secured by the price control scheme that the Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill will extend when it becomes law. Rather than being absorbed by the Treasury, we are arguing that every penny of this money should be ring-fenced and used to ensure that patients can access the very best new treatments available.

The NHS is our proudest national achievement, but it is to our shame that people in England are deprived of vital drugs and treatments on the basis of financial, rather than clinical, judgements.