Budget 2024: A recipe for life sciences success?   

Budget 2024: A recipe for life sciences success?   

Spices on spoons

Yesterday’s budget may well have been the last major fiscal event ahead of a general election and as such, politics has been front and centre in budget build-up and analysis.  

Like cooking, set piece political events need all the right ingredients, mixed together in the right proportions. With a further cut to national insurance, an increase in the child benefit threshold and the now traditional freeze on fuel duty, there are aspects of the budget which could land well with voters struggling with the cost of living. Pollsters will certainly be testing the measures with voters, so we won’t have to wait long to see if the the public likes what the Tories are serving up.  

Setting aside the politics however, there are larger policy questions at play. Top of mind for me is whether the budget delivers for health and life sciences.

One of the most significant announcements was the promise of £3.4 billion to fund an “NHS productivity plan”, focused on improving infrastructure and digitising processes. The NHS continues to run on often outdated technology, and the Chancellor predicted that this investment could help deliver 2% productivity growth per year, saving the NHS £35 billion by 2030 (not to mention the benefits this would bring to patients).  

The fund is expected to cover everything from updating IT systems and piloting the use of AI tools to improve back-office productivity, to making the NHS App a single “front door” for NHS services, ensuring all trusts have electronic patient records, and digitising transfers of care.  

This last point is particularly important. Referrals processes are often identified as slow and burdensome, so improvements here will be felt at the coal face. Yet key gaps between primary and secondary care still remain. High street optometrists might highlight that they cannot access hospital patient records or share images with secondary care, while gynaecologists might be frustrated by not knowing their patient’s HPV vaccination history or cancer screening data, even when these exist in digital forms.  

These barriers mean more referrals are needed, which is burdensome even where the referral process is streamlined. They also mean tests and histories end up being duplicated, which can be frustrating or distressing for patients. More broadly, addressing the challenges of siloed data will require coordination across a vast array different local systems and ways of working. Unless an NHS productivity plan addresses these issues, patients will continue to be faced with an inefficient system and long waiting lists. And of course, we have all seen digital transformation programmes which ran over time and budget or created previously unconsidered problems 

Nonetheless there is a second reason to welcome the Government’s investment in NHS productivity. The last several years have seen the UK struggle in an increasingly competitive global life sciences landscape, with clinical trial numbers falling and fewer new medicines being launched in the UK market. Governments tend not to think substantially beyond the next election. Today’s announcement, however, points to a willingness to invest in the short to medium term, in order to deliver long-term benefits for health and life sciences, and for broader productivity.  

There are other signs that Government is committed to ensuring UK life sciences has the ingredients it needs to prosper.  

Targeted investments of £45 million to support early career medical researchers will undoubtedly bring benefit (though every medical charity will argue that more is needed). Similarly, a long-term funding settlement for the Future Development Corporation in Cambridge will support a major life science cluster (though other clusters will want to know why they are not getting the same attention). These sit alongside broader measures, such an extension to the Investment Zones programme, and the continuation of the “full expensing” scheme (whereby investment in machinery can be tax deductible, encouraging businesses to invest). 

So I put the question to you: Does the UK seem like a more attractive place for life sciences today, or do the costs still outweigh the benefits? Will this apparent commitment to supporting UK health and life sciences succeed in attracting new investment? And does any of it matter if we expect a change of government within the year? 

The Chancellor would surely answer with a resounding “Yes” and would point to another announcement from the budget – the decision by Astra Zeneca to invest £650 million in research and manufacturing, across sites in Cambridge and Liverpool, as well as previously trailed expansions of manufacturing by Almac and Ortho Clinical diagnostics. Yet as any scientist knows, you cannot draw a meaningful conclusion from a such a small data set.   

The ultimate proof of this pudding will be in the eating.