BioPharma, Policy

Amid biopharma’s Brexit fears, Johnson hopes to sweeten immigration deal for scientists

Aimed at science, engineering and technology specialists, the changes would create a fast-track visa system that would make it easier for them to enter and stay in the country.

Amid fears that the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union could doom its stature in life sciences, the country’s new government plans to revamp immigration laws in an effort to make it more attractive and accessible to scientists.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday that he had instructed the Home Office and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to develop a fast-track visa system to be launched later this year designed to attract “elite” science, engineering and technology specialists. The new system would streamline and simplify many of the requirements that such professionals currently must meet.

Among other things, the proposal would allow a greater number of research institutes to endorse job candidates, create certain criteria that would confer automatic endorsement, give workers’ dependents full access to the U.K. labor market and eliminate the requirement that people have an offer of employment before arriving in the country.

The move came a week after the chair of the Wellcome Trust wrote in a letter to Johnson that leaving the E.U. without an agreement in place to formalize the relationship between it and the U.K. – a so-called no-deal Brexit – would pose a threat to funding to support life sciences research.

The warning echoed those of other groups that have expressed similar concerns, stating that a chaotic departure would leave the sector worse off as the country became less attractive to researchers and suffered diminished influence. Already, the European Medicines Agency has moved its headquarters from London to Amsterdam.

Meanwhile, several drugmakers have stockpiled drugs, fearing that a no-deal Brexit would make it harder for them to import products and raw materials due to the absence of formalized trade rules between the U.K. and E.U.

On the other hand, some have a more nuanced view. Notwithstanding a no-deal scenario, a panel at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s annual meeting in June, for example, foresaw both difficulties and opportunities in a post-Brexit U.K. Meanwhile, despite industry jitters, venture capital investment in British biopharma increased by more than $60 million in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period last year.

Johnson has threatened to let the U.K. crash out of the E.U. on the date of Brexit, Oct. 31, unless the bloc agrees to scrap the Irish border backstop, whereby in the event of a no-deal Brexit the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would remain open, and Northern Ireland would remain under the E.U. customs and regulatory system. The prospect of a hard border between them has reignited fears of a return to the Troubles, the decades-long sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland that ended in 1998.

Photo: Leon Neal, Getty Images