‘It will be patients who suffer the consequences’: Medical charities ask the government for £310 million

Patient sitting on hospital bed, rear view.
Patients will 'suffer the consequences' unless medical research charities receive more government support, they have warned. (Getty Images)

A group of medical charities is asking the government to stump up £310 million ($388 million) to cover income lost as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) warns the pandemic has cost more than 150 organisations millions as charity shops shut and key fundraising events, like Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life, were cancelled.

These charities were reportedly responsible for £1.9 billion ($2.3 billion), or 51%, of the money spent on non-commercial medical research in the UK in 2019.

With no financial support in sight, the AMRC is predicting a £310 million shortfall over the next 12 months, with it taking four years to return to normal.

The charities have warned unless the government “steps up” it will be “patients who suffer the consequences”.

‘It’s time for the government to step up’

The AMRC is calling on the government to commit to a Life-Sciences Partnership Fund, a co-investment scheme that provides match funding for charity research over the next three years.

“Medical research charities stepped up to support the country as the pandemic hit,” said Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the AMRC.

“Now it is time for government to step up and help reboot charity funded research that saves and improves countless lives.”

At the end of April, 801 out of the 1,102 (74%) clinical trials and studies funded by the AMRC had been paused.

This has since dropped to 540 (54%), however, the association has warned some may never restart after its members reported a 38% loss in fundraising income.

More than two thirds of the charities are also deferring upcoming grant rounds or withdrawing future funding.

One that is feeling the pinch is Cancer Research UK.

The charity may be forced to cut £150 million ($187.6 million) a year from its research funding as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. It is behind around 50% of all publicly funded cancer research in the UK.

“We have been massively hit by COVID-19 [the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus] as our fundraising efforts have been hugely restricted,” said Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive.

“We have been doing everything possible to limit the impact, but without a way to bridge this funding gap, we will have to make radical decisions about cutting lifesaving research, which will severely impact our vision of seeing three in four people survive their cancer within the next 20 years.

“Ultimately, it will be patients who will suffer the consequences, which is heartbreaking”.

Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, added: “A loss of £150 million is the equivalent of 10 years’ worth of clinical trials going unfunded.”

The charity was not eligible for the £750 million ($939.2 million) the government gave charities to compensate for coronavirus losses.

It tried to mitigate this by furloughing 60% of its staff and cutting the remaining workers’ pay to 80%, however, this did not cover the income lost.

“The £750 million charity package was developed to secure funding for charities providing frontline service support in terms of COVID-19, or where there was a direct knock on impact on their services – for example hospice charities or those providing support to vulnerable people due to COVID-19,” said Mitchell.

“While this funding is important and very welcome for those charities, it was not designed to support medical research activities and therefore Cancer Research UK has not been eligible to receive any funding through it.”

Scientist pipetting samples into micro centrifuge tubes ready for automated analysis.
Medical research will be forced to pause or even stop without sufficient funding. (Getty Images)

‘We face an unprecedented research funding crisis’

The British Heart Foundation supports a portfolio of £446 million ($558 million) of research at 47 institutions across the UK.

It expects its net income, and therefore investment in new research, to drop by up to 50% this year.

“We face an unprecedented research funding crisis that threatens to arrest real progress”, said Dr Charmaine Griffiths, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation.

“The shockwaves from such a drop in funding for heart and circulatory disease research will be profound, stalling progress in making the discoveries we urgently need.”

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, added: “Ultimately, patients and the public will suffer as the discovery and development of new ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating heart and circulatory diseases will slow.

“The lifeblood of making advances through research are the scientists we fund.

“We could potentially lose a generation of researchers because of the reduction in our funding and this loss could take a long time to recover.”

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Parkinson’s UK “knew” a major breakthrough and cure for the progressive nervous system disorder was “close”.

Instead, the pandemic has forced the charity to “fight for fair treatment and better services” for patients, who are more at risk of coronavirus complications.

To maintain this increased support, Parkinson’s UK must reportedly raise £95,000 ($118,872) a week for the next three months.

Speaking at a Science Media Centre briefing, the chief executives of all three charities thanked the public for continuing to donate via standing orders amid the pandemic.

“Individuals have been incredibly generous and supportive, [which] shows to me what the public thinks is important”, said Steve Ford, chief executive of Parkinson’s UK.

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