Medicines regulator to cut hundreds of jobs

Proposed 20% headcount reduction follows post-Brexit loss of EU fees income
The government's East London Hub, where MHRA is based. Photo: Government Property Unit

By Jim Dunton

09 Sep 2021

More than one in five staff at the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency could lose their jobs in a restructuring drive designed to deal with financial pressures that include the loss of fees income following the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Unions representing staff at the organisation, which regulates medicines, medical devices and blood components for transfusion in the UK, said at least 20% of roles are under threat. The Department of Health and Social Care executive agency has confirmed “approximately 300” jobs are expected to go.

The MHRA, which is responsible for approving Covid-19 vaccines as part of its routine work, had an average of 1,182 permanent staff and 206 other workers during 2020-21, according to its most recent annual report,  published in July.

Unions representing staff at the agency, which has its headquarters at the government’s east London hub at Canary Wharf,  have written to health secretary Sajid Javid calling for a stopgap funding boost to tide the MHRA through a “meaningful review” of functions.

The letter – signed by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy and FDA general secretary Dave Penman – said that while fees income from the EU have dropped as a result of Brexit, staff workloads have actually increased. They said the real problem affecting the agency is a failure on the part of ministers to replace lost funding or introduce a sustainable financial model.

“In recent months ministers have rightly praised staff at the MHRA for the way in which they have responded to the pandemic,” the letter says.

“It was thanks to the dedication and hard work of our members that the vaccines were able to be approved swiftly and batch-released so that the vaccination drive could begin rapidly and with confidence, not to mention the approval of other medicines for the prevention and treatment of acute Covid-19 infection, testing kits and ventilators.”

The letter also expressed fears that staff cuts of the magnitude proposed could lead to an “exodus of talented staff” who are highly skilled, negatively affecting the quality of regulatory decisions.

The unions are calling on Javid to intervene as part of next month’s Spending Review and provide the MHRA with short-term funding to allow for a “meaningful review of functions, structure and financial sustainability” without imposing drastic staffing cuts at the same time.

 FDA national officer Jawad Rasa told CSW the union was “deeply concerned” that the MHRA was following a course of action that would “inevitably” lead to a loss of experienced staff in the middle of a global pandemic.

“This is a time when we need these staff the most and losing them will threaten the UK’s status as a world leader in medical regulation,” he said.

“The secretary of state has the ability to put this right, and we remain ready to meet with him and work together to ensure the correct level of funding is provided to ensure the MHRA remains a world class medical regulator able to respond to emerging health challenges.

“If this funding is not provided, then the government need to be clear about the huge impact this will have and how it will be addressed.”

An MHRA spokesperson said staff at the agency were told in February of plans to transform the way the organisation works in response to four separate challenges.

In addition to changes related to Brexit, the other challenges are: financial pressures; the agency’s role in enabling the government’s Life Sciences Vision strategy; and the recent Cumberlege Review, which recommended the MHRA focus on patients in all its activities.

“We will continue to be a world-class regulator that delivers the right outcomes for patients, while we modernise the services we provide to industry, and remain financially stable,” the spokesperson said.

“Our transformation will lead to a reduction in our workforce of around 20% which is approximately 300 roles. This reduction will take into account the different functions across the agency.

 “We will be making savings in our operating costs, as well as redeploying and retraining our staff in new areas of regulation and science.

 “We have had extensive discussions with concerned staff and unions, and a formal consultation process is underway, where we will continue to engage our staff. We expect to conclude this consultation during the autumn period.”

The MHRA’s 2020-21 annual report said its income from fee-charging statutory activities and other commercial work was £103.2m in the last financial year, down £8.1m on 2019-20.

Conversely,  it said staffing costs had risen by £6.2m over the same period, reflecting a 7.5% increase in headcount that related to EU exit transition work and responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

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