Newsmaker: Lobbyist John Murray in the spotlight over big pharma's links to NHS policy

The Independent splashed this week on a story highlighting lobbyist John Murray as a conduit between medical suppliers and the policymaking of NHS England.

NHS lobbyist John Murray: SHCA director and founder of JMC Partners
NHS lobbyist John Murray: SHCA director and founder of JMC Partners

The Independent’s story focused on a draft report on the future of healthcare produced by the Specialised Healthcare Alliance (SHCA), a coalition of patient groups and corporate members, for NHS England, a quango that runs the NHS under the Government’s healthcare reforms.

The SHCA, of which Murray is a director, is funded by pharmaceutical and medical supplies companies.

Murray also has his own lobbying firm, JMC Partners, which works for drug companies such as Astra Zeneca and Roche.

He set up JMC 12 years ago, after a spell as corporate communications director for another drug company, Novo Nordisk. This followed a varied career including government affairs and media relations roles in trade associations for the shipping industry and the milling and baking industry.

The Independent highlighted how he authored the foreword to the draft report along with James Palmer, the director of specialised services at NHS England, "with whom Murray admits he has had 'many meetings' [on] a wide range of organisations and interests'", according to the paper.

This and a suggestion in the report that the NHS should "disinvest in interventions that have lower impact for patients" to allow "reinvestment in new services or innovations" led the paper to suggest this may be a case of the industry trying to influence policy for financial benefit.

NHS England says the report will not influence its final recommendations, which are due to be released next year, and Palmer told the paper the body was aware of Murray's role as a lobbyist and was happy with his involvement.  

PRWeek was told by one healthcare public affairs specialist, speaking off the record because of client conflicts, that the SHCA does a valuable job as a forum for stakeholders and it is understandable why NHS England wants to work closely with the organisation.

However, they suggest the way the report gathered stakeholder opinions was unusual, saying: "This is something that the SHCA would want to contribute to and the NHS would want it to be involved in, but in this case NHS England seems to have outsourced the process to the SHCA."

Murray, speaking to PRWeek, denies this, explaining that the SHCA had offered to work in partnership with NHS England to help with a scoping phase of the development of its five-year strategy.

"We prepared a first draft working with a range of stakeholders and submitted it to NHS England for consideration," he said.

The issue has also been raised in Parliament by Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt, who said last month that the revelations "called into question the integrity and objectivity of NHS England’s handling of 143 specialised services for millions of people".

Former health secretary and now leader of the House of Commons Andrew Lansley rejected her proposal for a debate, praising Murray as "someone very expert in relation to specialised healthcare issues", and said responsibility lies with NHS England to ensure impartiality.

Murray also denies any conflict of interest, adding: "The SHCA is funded by money from pharmaceutical companies and so the organisation never takes a position on particular products or treatments. The main reason for this is that the alliance would be seen as a Trojan horse for commercial interests."

He adds that JMC is scrupulous about being transparent in the work it does for clients, which is backed up by the self-regulatory body for public affairs agencies, the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC).

The APPC confirmed to PRWeek that all JMC’s clients are declared transparently in its register, adding that had a complaint been lodged it would be visible on its website and this is not the case.

Murray was also supported by Rachel Yates, who works for an SHCA member organisation, has known him since 2008 and employs him for political monitoring services.

Yates is the chief officer of the Specialist Orthopaedic Alliance, which consists of a group of specialist centres in the UK that provide orthopaedic services to NHS and private patients and train surgeons and physiotherapists. The Specialist Orthopaedic Alliance does not fund the SHCA.

Yates says of Murray: "I’ve never known someone who plays with such a straight bat. He is on-the-nail strict about doing everything properly and transparently. This is a really tough subject and you have to precise, very clever and know what’s going on. You need to read all the documents and he’s almost academic in his approach. He really knows his subject."

She also defends the funding of the SHCA by drugs companies, saying: "It’s quite difficult to get patients to engage with NHS policymaking and the work the SHCA does is meaningful. It feels like the drug companies are sponsoring it to tick a box for corporate social responsibility rather than anything else, and it’s good that they do it because it gives patient groups for rare diseases a voice."

Murray hopes that questions about integrity will not deter the NHS from engaging with the SHCA in future. "The last thing we want is for it to go into its shell," he said.

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