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Daniel Zeichner's warning over post-Brexit medicines

MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner. Picture - Richard Marsham
MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner. Picture - Richard Marsham

City MP on life sciences, that battle bus - and James Palmer

MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner in conversation with Mike Scialom. Picture - Richard Marsham
MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner in conversation with Mike Scialom. Picture - Richard Marsham

Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner is urging businesses in Cambridge – particularly the life science sector – to register their concerns about Brexit outcomes more vocally.

In an exclusive interview with the Cambridge Independent, Mr Zeichner, the Labour MP for the city since 2015, also indicated he would prefer a general election rather than a so-called ‘people’s vote’ to resolve the crippling Brexit crisis.

Concerns about the future of the life sciences sector in the UK started when the European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced its move from London to Amsterdam in late 2017. Alarm bells were ringing even louder when Parliament voted just 305-301 in favour of continuing the UKs involvement with the EMA last month. The vote made clear the danger to the life sciences industry as March 2019 approaches.

“If we are not part of the EMA’s regulatory system there will be consequences,” said Mr Zeichner. “The cost of medicines will rise for the consumer, and the cost of purchasing medicines for the NHS will rise.

MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner and his PA, Jenna Drler pictured in Cambridge Market. Picture - Richard Marsham
MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner and his PA, Jenna Drler pictured in Cambridge Market. Picture - Richard Marsham

“That £350million on the side of the bus,” he said, referring to the infamous Vote Leave battle bus, “it’s quite likely that all that will be lost just because of the cost of getting medicines and my view is that people will likely die as a result of these costs. We’ve got to salvage what we can, because the EMA has already moved to Amsterdam. All our benefits are going overseas – we’ve shot ourselves in both feet.

“But we can get through in the short to medium term – AstraZeneca coming to Cambridge was a very big decision, and we very much hope they will stay and prosper, and if you look at the work at Babraham, at the Sanger Institute, at Napp, it’s vibrant but has a highly international workforce, so if the UK is less welcoming, or appears less welcoming, that is a problem for us.”

Mr Zeichner was scathing about the Brexit Select Committee’s fact-finding mission to Cambridge at the start of the year. “Almost all the Brexiteers, without exception, didn’t turn up, and I think that’s because they didn’t want to hear the truth – that their entire argument is false and it’s a fantasy. There is no Churchillian fight on the beaches.”

Although the Wellcome Sanger Institute has given its, calling for the free movement of scientists after Brexit, Mr Zeichner feels in general the life sciences industry in Cambridge has evidence to a government committee yet to clear its throat, let alone put its case, when it comes to Brexit.

MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner in conversation with Mike Scialom. Picture - Richard Marsham
MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner in conversation with Mike Scialom. Picture - Richard Marsham

While concerned about the silence, he believes that the reason for the community’s reticence is that its leaders bought into a commitment made in a letter to the Financial Times written by then-health secretary Jeremy Hunt and business secretary Greg Clark. The duo wrote that, when it comes to the pharmaceutical sector, “the UK would like to find a way to continue to collaborate with the EU, in the interests of public health and safety”.

“The sector was reassured by the ‘letter of comfort’ by Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark 18 months ago,” said Mr Zeichner. “They said ‘don’t worry, we’ll do whatever we can to protect life sciences as the sector is so important to us’. At that point Jeremy Hunt had forgotten he was a Remainer but they were aware how dangerous it was.

“So perhaps enough was done, but having said that I do think people in key positions have been too quiet. They discuss their concerns privately but publicly they are not saying what they think. It is a concern. I understand why there’s difficulty there but it’s in their interests to tell the truth because we’re reaching the point of no return.

“I want to hear more from the life sciences sector and business in general – not in a scaremongering way,” he said.

Mr Zeichner sees the Brexit process so far as “like telling your landlord you’re leaving and you’re about to throw away the keys and then you realise you haven’t got somewhere to move to next”.

With the entire process currently close to grinding to a halt, the whole sorry farrago is heading for some sort of showdown. But will it be with the EU or within the UK? Mr Zeichner is fully aware of the impasse.

“The official response from the EU is a ‘no’ to the Chequers agreement, I can’t see any possibility of their accepting a customs union, there’s no deal for Ireland, so they’re stuck, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we’re heading for a general election rather than a ‘people’s vote’.

“I’ve nothing against a people’s vote, but what I do find slightly worrying about that is that would take us back to where we started – where a third of people in the UK are profoundly unhappy.”

Mr Zeichner feels that to move forward the question of how free movement of people really is “has got to be readdressed”.

“Free movement of people, if you have a job, is fine, beyond that people are unhappy. ‘Anyone can go anywhere’... this is not my view, but this issue has upset people.”

The notion of a new political party being formed is not on Mr Zeichner’s radar.

“I don’t think a new party is viable in this country, the parties are reflecting the divisions in this country.

“Andrew Adonis (former transport minister who now campaigns for the UK to remain in the EU) wants to stay in the EU but a radical solution is needed to the fact that huge numbers of people have been left behind and that’s why I think a general election and a Labour government could solve this.”

Given the looming exit next March, a general election would have to take place pretty quickly?

“There would have to be a general election soon – it could be in October. I don’t see why we can’t have an autumn poll. This poses some problems for Labour, but to be honest I can’t think of a more critical situation the country has faced in my lifetime.”

Mr Zeichner has developed a following in Cambridge for his clear and robust defence of a position which backs the local economy to the hilt – while bearing in mind that very many people in the city remain disconnected.

“I don’t think it can be straightforward, it’s very easy for me in Cambridge, but I’m not forgetting that a quarter of people here didn’t vote to leave,” he said. “But I do not disrespect people who didn’t vote, there’s parts of the city who do not feel they are sharing in the prosperity. On the same site as the new life science buildings, which are shining and new, is a relatively decrepit hospital. Addenbrooke’s hasn’t seen any improvement and this is a perfect metaphor for what’s happening here.”

Finally, we turn to the tussle between the Greater Cambridge Partnership, chaired by city council’s Labour leader Lewis Herbert, and the Tory mayor of the Combined Authority, James Palmer, which prompted the government to threaten to withhold £400million investment in the county.

“I’ve always followed regional politics very closely. With James Palmer as mayor, the role needs someone to work collaboratively with all sorts of organisations across the county, and he’s not been able to bring people together, but there has been some recognition of that.

“The Greater Cambridge Partnership has got some particular interests which need to be represented. Lewis Herbert has always been very reasonable, and if the mayor respects their position then good, but some transport ideas – walking or cycling up to three or five kilometres to the nearest transport hub – are a surprise. The idea seems very unlikely so the mayor needs to rethink that. It’s good to have a grand vision but it needs to be reasonable.”

Parliament reconvenes on September 3.

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