The future of our health service is at stake
From the outside looking in, the new Health Secretary Therese Coffey has drawn the short straw.
Patient backlogs have just hit new record highs – almost 7 million people are now waiting to start treatment in England alone – and critical staffing shortages – gaps stand at around 132,000 in NHS trusts and 165,000 in adult social care – both make for grim reading. Add in the promise of spiking Covid cases and this winter may edge the NHS to its breaking point.
Coffey’s plan to turn the ship around is set to be announced later today but she has already hinted at her priorities on the job: “ambulances, backlog, care, doctors and dentists” or “ABCD”. Given NHS Confederation CEO Matthew Taylor’s recent suggestion that the NHS and social care system is in a “worse state than in living memory” and that “there is no quick or easy way out of these deep-rooted problems”, it goes without saying that the government must not rely solely on catchy slogans this time around. Our health and wellbeing strategy requires a step change.
We must empower individuals to take charge of their own health and wellbeing to live healthier, happier lives
But long-term solutions do exist. It is a source of great pride that my adopted home, Cumbria, is leading the way in revolutionising the way we think about healthcare.
For context, local health outcomes in Cumbria continue to be amongst the most challenging in the country. In the port of Barrow-in-Furness, life expectancy can drop a shocking 13 years in a 30-minute walk across town. It is unfortunately a case all too common, especially in the north of England where levelling up has not touched health outcomes. It is here that we must empower individuals to take charge of their own health and wellbeing to live healthier, happier lives and that starts with local stakeholders coming together to put the health of the community first.
The good news is that such an innovative approach is up and running, in the form of a proactive healthcare programme born from public, private and third sector collaboration. The newly formed Cumbria Healthier Community Programme Board, which I have recently been asked to chair, brings together the local leaders entrusted to safeguard the health of the community. Representatives from NHS Morecambe Bay Health Trust, Barrow Borough Council and charities like the Cumbria Alcohol and Drug Advisory Service, are now sat at the same table as Barrow’s biggest employer, BAE Systems, and local testing services company, Circular 1 Health, to address the real health issues facing Cumbrians. We will achieve this through collaboration and a greater emphasis on high quality social prescriptions, in which GPs can refer people to access a range of local organisations in the sports, arts and third sectors to promote good mental and physical health, rather than just treating ill health.
The answer to the long-term sustainability of the NHS must be to reduce the demand on it by us all living healthier lives and taking a more proactive approach to our health. This has been my belief since I was a public health minister, and I am confident Cumbria has a blueprint that can be replicated across the north of England and the rest of the UK to build more resilient communities that have proactive health at their heart.
I do not know Therese personally, but by all accounts, she is well-liked in Westminster and her strong networking skills will hopefully foster a collaborative, cross-departmental approach to tackling our nation’s health ills. Local Cumbrian Conservative MPs Simon Fell and Trudy Harrison have already endorsed our programme and, after all, if I could address the Northern Research Group Conference back in May in front of a sea of blue, then I have no doubt Ms Coffey can put party loyalty aside and engage with her Labour counterparts.
As rumours swirl around Whitehall that the sugar tax and other anti-obesity measures are soon to be scrapped, it is clear that the future of our health service truly is at stake.
Hazel Blears, former Labour MP for Salford and Eccles and former health minister.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.