Almost a year since the UK left the European Union, the transition period has ended.

And we’ve left with a deal.

This means the UK-EU relationship will be governed by a legal agreement that covers a broad range of activities that affect healthcare, including cancer services and research.

After 5 years of debate, negotiations and speculation, there’s still a lot to be worked out. This agreement will likely be expanded upon in future negotiations between the UK and EU on specific topics. For example, it’s encouraging to see the deal includes UK participation in Horizon Europe, the EU’s science programme, but the details of this need to be set out.

We’ve written before about what Brexit could mean for cancer, but here’s what we know about how the new UK-EU relationship may affect cancer services and research.

Will this affect access to cancer treatments?

The UK Government has agreed to recognise EU testing of medicines batches for a 2-year period, in order to minimise any disruption to the UK’s supply of imported medicines. The EU has not reciprocated this agreement, meaning medicine batches tested in the UK will need to be tested again when they enter the EU. However, this could change if the UK and EU negotiate a Mutual Recognition Agreement, which we’re encouraging both sides to do.

The UK Government has also made extensive plans to minimise any disruption to the supply of medicines, including asking distributors to hold additional supplies of medicines and securing emergency freight capacity for medicines and other priority goods.

We’ve insisted that all people with cancer must receive their treatments as planned and that protecting medicines supply chains must be a priority for both the UK and EU. And that the UK Government communicates clearly with patients and the NHS about the supply of medicines.

We will continue to closely monitor patient access to cancer medicines and raise any issues we identify with the UK Government.

How will this affect current clinical trials?

Most clinical trials should be minimally disrupted by the new relationship, as they’re covered by the medicines supply arrangements described above.

These trials are also covered by the agreement’s arrangements for moving data between the UK and EU. This is important for international clinical trials that recruit patients across multiple countries, as these trials rely on moving personal data across borders. In addition to the negotiated deal, most international trials have taken steps to prevent this causing major disruption to trial participants by making legal agreements with their EU-based partners.

If disruption to data occurs, it may affect patients’ experience with a trial – for example, patients may be given updated information about the trial’s use of their data – but it should not affect their access to planned treatments.

What will happen to clinical trials in future?

Our clinical trials will continue to recruit new patients as usual after we leave the transition period, although some trial recruitment may continue to be impacted by the pandemic.

Although a deal has been agreed, future changes to UK and EU regulation could create challenges for running international cancer trials. 99% of people affected by cancer we surveyed believe the UK and EU should negotiate a relationship that allows cross-border clinical trials to operate as easily as they did during the transition period now.

We will continue to monitor how life-saving cancer research is being affected by the new UK-EU relationship and advocate in areas where the relationship could better support cancer patients and researchers.

What happens next?

Whilst the transition period has ended, the UK and EU will continue to negotiate on lots of different areas. Several of these are important to cancer services and research, and we will be advocating for:

  • Support for international collaboration in cancer research, including clinical trials.
  • Working with other countries to get access to the newest cancer treatments.
  • An immigration system that attracts talented cancer researchers to the UK.
  • Trade deals that treat public health as a top priority.

We will continue to be a strong voice for people affected by cancer. And if you’d like to join our nationwide movement to beat cancer, our campaigns team would love to hear from you.

If you or someone close to you have been affected by cancer and you have any questions about cancer, you can talk to our nurses Monday to Friday, 9-5pm, on freephone 0808 800 4040.

Laura Williams is Cancer Research UK’s Europe & Global affairs manager

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