Listen to this article
A Labour government would create a state-owned generic drugs company to supply cheap medicine to the National Health Service, Jeremy Corbyn has announced.
The leader of the opposition used his set-piece speech at the Labour party conference to announce the initiative, dubbed “Medicines For The Many”, which would force established drugs companies to compete with the publicly-owned drugs maker.
A Labour government would also legislate to force pharmaceutical companies to make their medicines “affordable for all” if they wanted public research funding, he said. It would also use compulsory licensing to secure generic versions of patented medicines.
The move came after Labour promised earlier in the week to scrap prescription charges if it gets into power.
During his speech, the Labour leader highlighted the case of nine-year-old Luis Walker, who has cystic fibrosis.
“Luis’ life could be very different with the aid of a medicine called Orkambi,” said Mr Corbyn. “But Luis is denied the medicine he needs because its manufacturer refuses to sell the drug to the NHS for an affordable price.”
Richard Torbett, executive director of Commercial Policy at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said the situation on Orkambi was rare “but it is clearly unacceptable, and a solution needs to be found for patients and their families”.
However, he said “compulsory licensing — the seizure of new research — is not the answer”.
Dr Torbett argued it would completely undermine the system for developing new medicines. “It would send a hugely negative signal to British scientists and would discourage research in a country that wants to be a leader in innovation,” he added.
Responding to Mr Corbyn’s speech, Orkambi maker Vertex said: “It is our belief that invoking Crown use and providing third parties with access to a company’s intellectual property, would not represent a quick solution for patients and is not a mechanism for the provision of medicines at a lower price.”
It would significantly weaken incentives for future innovation industry-wide and possibly affect the UK’s position as a hub for investment in biotechnology, the company argued.
“Importantly, in this case, it would seriously undermine Vertex’s ability to achieve our goals to treat the underlying cause of CF for all patients and ultimately discover a cure,” it said in a statement.
Mr Corbyn moved his speech from Wednesday to Tuesday after the Supreme Court ruled that Boris Johnson had acted unlawfully, effectively wrapping up the Labour conference early. The ruling was a bright spot for the Labour leader following several days of factional infighting and disagreements over Brexit policy.
Mr Corbyn told delegates to get ready for a general election, declaring: “Together we’ll take on the privileged and put the people in power”.
Defying negative opinion polls — which suggest that Labour is trailing far behind the Conservatives — he insisted that “the tide is turning” and that the “years of retreat and defeat” were coming to an end.
Mr Corbyn outlined a vision for a Labour government that would take on “financial speculators, tax dodgers and big polluters” to the benefit of workers.
A Labour government would oversee a “green industrial revolution”, impose higher taxes on the top 5 per cent of earners, finance a big housebuilding drive and a “record investment blitz” in infrastructure across the country.
There would be much more money pumped into the NHS, schools and police, he said. Labour would also bring about the biggest extension of rights for workers that the UK had ever seen.
“No more tinkering around the edges,” he said. “These aren’t abstract numbers on a spreadsheet. They stand for an economic transformation that will change your daily life.”
Mr Corbyn said Labour would stand up for tenants, underpaid workers and those struggling to make ends meet.
“Labour will make the big corporations pay the tax they owe while the Tories will give them tax breaks,” he said. “How can it be right that the largest companies and wealthiest individuals are being given tax cuts while at the other end mums and dads are missing meals so they can feed their kids?”
The speech dismayed business groups. Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, labelled it “desperately disappointing”.
She lamented the lack of any mentions of “the value business brings to communities and workers across the UK: the jobs they create, the people they train, the innovation they deliver,” adding: “Instead, firms have faced a volley of attacks, on sectors from life sciences to utilities.”
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on Labour Party UK when a new story is published