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Wednesday 21st March 2012 | 06:56
Last week staff at the Sanofi pharmaceuticals manufacturing centre in Fawdon were told that it is to close in 2015, with the loss of 450 jobs.
News of the proposed closure was a huge blow, not least because the North East already has the highest unemployment rate of any region in the United Kingdom at 10.8%.
The factory has been part of the North East’s manufacturing base for many years. Andrews Liver Salts, invented by a Newcastle entrepreneur in 1896, were made there, as well as other household names such as Milk of Magnesia and Panadol. In the decade after Sanofi acquired the old ‘Sterling-Winthrop’ plant in 1994, they have spent £100m on modernising its facilities.
The UK is a world leader in the pharmaceutical industry. It is a net exporter, generating a positive trade surplus, and a key employer providing an estimated 67,000 direct jobs. It is also the leading sector in terms of investment in R&D, at about £4bn each year.
The workers in Fawdon were engaged in manufacturing and production, which are closely linked to research and development. In fact the relationship is crucial. If manufacturing goes offshore to other countries, our competitiveness across the whole industry will suffer.
Retaining our world-class status in pharmaceuticals will involve the government working actively and intelligently with businesses, such as Sanofi, to retain both R&D and manufacturing capability. There is huge global potential here – with an ageing population, Sanofi’s products made in Newcastle can only be in increasing demand.
If we do not do our utmost to protect our pharmaceuticals sector, emerging economies will eagerly take over the reins. In Newcastle, the skills built up over generations will go to waste and the machinery so expensively installed will be scrapped or taken abroad.
Over the last two years Pfizer has announced the closure of their R&D facility at Sandwich in East Kent, and job losses have also occurred in AstraZenica, Macclesfield. The closure of Sanofi must be seen in this context.
When will the Government start to act decisively on industrial strategy and support our world class industry?
Also, with the NHS experiencing shortages of prescription medicines, there should be much closer working between BIS and DOH to help companies like Sanofi, yet there is no evidence that this is happening.
We have an outstanding tradition of manufacturing and production in the North East and a population who are ready, willing and committed to working. Newcastle is also a great science city with world class universities providing excellent research.
The Government must assist in meeting the challenges faced by Sanofi Fawdon Manufacturing Centre in the same way that it did for Pfizer. If it is really serious about an active industrial strategy, it would be doing all it could to broker a deal so that Sanofi stays in the North East and pharmaceutical companies do not disinvest from Britain.
Work is already underway to establish a task force comprising of Unite, local councillors, local MPs and other stakeholders with the aim of retaining skills, creating a future for the centre and securing the investment that is needed. The Government’s support and resources will be vital to our success.
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