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Pfizer plans to axe 500 jobs at Discovery Park site in Sandwich

Hundreds of Pfizer staff in Kent have today been officially informed their jobs are at risk.

The move is part of a redundancy consultation programme launched by the Sandwich pharmaceutical giant.

The Pfizer base at Discovery Park, Sandwich. Picture: Google Maps
The Pfizer base at Discovery Park, Sandwich. Picture: Google Maps

The firm is planning to axe 500 jobs and close its experimental research division at the Discovery Park.

A consultation into the redundancies is now open and those affected at the east Kent site are aware their roles are at risk. KentOnline understands staff have been told they can go home for the day today.

In total, 940 people work at the Sandwich facility.

Pfizer’s presence in the town has been significantly reduced since bosses first announced in 2011 that they were leaving the site, where their scientists famously discovered Viagra.

After that, when more than 2,000 were made redundant, the pharmaceutical company retained a smaller presence and continued to carry out research and development in the county.

During the pandemic, Pfizer invested £10 million into advanced manufacturing technology at its Sandwich plant to speed up the development of new breakthrough medicines.

The Pfizer site in SandwichPicture: Terry Scott
The Pfizer site in SandwichPicture: Terry Scott

Now the firm is proposing to discontinue all laboratory and manufacturing operations at the site.

It is another major blow for employment in the Dover district – with 800 jobs being axed by P&O Ferries last year.

In October the pharmaceutical giant announced plans to cut $3.5 billion worth of jobs and expenses across the business due to falling sales of its Covid-19 vaccine and Paxlovid, a prescription pill for treating the virus.

MP for South Thanet, Craig Mackinlay's office has confirmed they are in contact with Pfizer about the proposals.

A Pfizer spokesperson said: “Pfizer has launched an enterprise-wide cost realignment program. Various areas of Pfizer’s global enterprise are making changes to operate more efficiently and effectively.

“One of the consequences of this program is a plan to consolidate our Pharmaceutical Sciences Small Molecule (PSSM) capabilities, aligned around our portfolio priorities.

“Therefore, the company has made the difficult decision to propose a discontinuation of our PSSM operations at Sandwich, Kent, impacting approximately 500 roles.

The Materials Science lab at Pfizer Sandwich
The Materials Science lab at Pfizer Sandwich

“Under the proposals, other functions at our Sandwich site will continue with a different size.

“We are proud of our heritage of breakthrough science in the UK and we will retain a scientific presence in the UK including at our Discovery Park location in Sandwich.

“These proposals are now in consultation with the affected colleagues. All job-related decisions will be made with transparency, respect, and in compliance with all applicable laws.”

They continued: “We are proposing to reduce the size of our Sandwich-based site by approximately 500 roles. These proposals are now in consultation with the affected colleagues, and we will act with transparency, respect, and in compliance with all applicable laws.

“PSSM is proposing to discontinue its operations in Sandwich, inclusive of all laboratory and manufacturing operations. A small number of roles are proposed to be maintained to support continuing business with UK and European vendors, global business needs, and the global portfolio.

Discovery Park, the former Pfizer site in Sandwich. Picture: Kathryn Clapham
Discovery Park, the former Pfizer site in Sandwich. Picture: Kathryn Clapham

“Some other parts of our organisation at Sandwich, supporting the PSSM function directly, will also be affected to a smaller extent.

“There are also other functions located at Sandwich, including Worldwide Medical and Safety, Global Regulatory and Clinical Development & Operations functions and while we anticipate that these functions may propose some changes they intend to retain a footprint at Sandwich.”

A look back at Pfizer’s time in Kent, by Chris Britcher

Pfizer’s decision to dramatically pull back in 2011 had a significant impact on its sprawling complex in Sandwich.

The site had grown over the many years since the US-headquartered company had first opened its doors back in 1954.

It was a significant centre of scientific breakthroughs – perhaps most notably in 1996 when it stumbled across what would become Viagra.

Originally testing for a drug to tackle angina, the men taking part in the trials reported that the relaxing of blood vessels around the heart were also having an impact further down the body too.

The result was a solution to erectile dysfunction and one which spawned a billion-dollar industry just on its own when it launched commercially in 1998.

Millions of men around the world have owed a debt of gratitude ever since.

By the time Pfizer decided to withdraw the bulk of its staff and close much of its office and laboratory space in 2011 – with the loss of 2,400 jobs – the site covered in excess of 220 acres.

It included a huge sports complex for staff – with squash courts, football pitches, tennis courts and associated leisure facilities.

Given its prominence – the site spills along the A256 coast road which stretches from Ramsgate down to Dover – talks immediately began as to how to both protect the facilities there and ensure the loss of so many jobs did not have too profound an impact on the east Kent economy.

Businessmen Chris Musgrave, Trever Cartner and Ray Palmer entered into talks with Pfizer and agreed a deal to acquire the complex.

Renaming it Discovery Park, it was billed as a science park with cutting-edge facilities and open to all. Key stakeholders included Kent County Council and Dover District Council.

Pfizer did retain a significant presence – initially some 700 staff – but new tenants started taking up space. They ranged from scientists to solicitors and everything inbetween.

The sports and social aspect became the Baypoint Sports Club.

Since Discovery Park was born, it has attracted more than 160 new businesses to the site and has some 3,500 employees working at the complex.

Its turnaround has been significant and crucial to the broader local economy.

By slashing so many jobs – many of them highly-skilled, highly-paid scientific roles – Pfizer’s step back in 2011 had a major, albeit short-term, impact on the local housing market as those people moved elsewhere, as well as a significant knock-on effect on the supply chain which had long been established to serve the site.

While few would argue the surrounding area did not feel pain, the revival of Discovery Park has allowed a return to prosperity.

It was sold to a US consortium in 2017 which continues to run the site today.

A joint statement issued by the area’s three MPs – Natalie Elphicke (Dover), Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) and Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) – said they “regret” the Pfizer announcement.

It said: “The loss of employment locally will undoubtedly be a challenging development for the affected staff and their families.

“However, we should also note that Pfizer intends to maintain a presence on the Sandwich site, and we highlight the significant strides made by Discovery Park in evolving into a world-leading Science Park.

“The diversified functions at the Sandwich site underscore the Park`s resilience and potential for growth.

“The strength of Discovery Park as a hub for scientific innovation will offer opportunities for those affected, and whose jobs are not transferred to other sites, to explore alternative employment within the same campus.

“We are committed to supporting the affected employees during this transition and are working closely with Pfizer to ensure transparency, respect, and compliance with applicable legislation throughout the consultation process.

“We remain very optimistic about the future of Discovery Park and its contribution to scientific advancements, fostering a dynamic and thriving research and development community.”

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