The EU flag

This post has been updated following a speech by the Prime Minister at Downing Street in late September.

Brexit dominated the headlines last week, as the Government published the first in a series of plans for how it will respond if the UK doesn’t reach a deal with the European Union by the end of this year – a so-called ‘no-deal’ Brexit.

If there is no deal, the planned 18 months in which the UK would keep EU laws so organisations and business can adapt would be lost, and on March 29 the UK would stop being an EU member overnight. The standards and rules for how the UK trades and cooperates with the EU would also immediately stop applying.

So how would a no-deal Brexit affect cancer patients and research?

What came up for cancer?

The key areas for cancer patients and research in the latest batch of notices were the supply of cancer medicines, approving new drugs and clinical trials.

Now, the UK follows the EU on the licensing of new medicines, ensuring patients have swift access to safe and effective new treatments as soon as they come to market.

The UK also works with EU countries on clinical trials. This is particularly important for rare and childhood cancers, when there often aren’t enough patients in an individual country to run trials that are big enough to give clear results.

A big concern is that losing this cooperation could lead to delays for UK patients getting the newest medicines, or hinder international clinical trials where patients get access to the most innovative treatments.

And from the notices released last week, the Government seem to agree. They confirm that, even if there is no deal, the UK will continue to use EU standards on medicines and clinical trials in the short term. This should mean UK patients can continue to access vital treatments whatever happens.

But even with these steps, the notices make clear that a no deal would still cause disruption – and that drugs companies should stockpile medicines just in case.

Another big issue is immigration. Making it easy for people to move around Europe is essential for cancer research, allowing scientists to work in and collaborate with labs in different countries.

About half of the researchers and PhD students we fund are from outside of the UK. So it was great to hear the Prime Minister guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK whether a deal is reached or not, in a speech at Downing Street in late September.

This gives some important certainty to our scientists and means their vital cancer research can continue. We now want to see the EU make the same promise, so UK researchers in other European countries know that their rights to live and work are protected.

What happens next?

While preparing for a no deal is important, the priority now for both the UK and the EU is to reach a deal. They were hoping to have this done by the middle of October, when European leaders meet in Brussels for a summit. But progress has been slower than expected, and a deal is more likely to come in November or even December.

This deal would sort out the transition period and allow business to go on largely as normal after March 29. This would be much better for cancer patients than a no deal, ensuring that they continue to have access to new treatments and opportunities to join clinical trials.

After this deal is reached the UK and EU would go back to negotiations, fleshing out the details of the future relationship. Big issues like trade will then be decided, alongside how the UK works with the EU on medicines, research and health.

Mark Heffernan is a public affairs manager at Cancer Research UK