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Preventing ill-health is vital to ensure the NHS survives another 75 years


4 min read

The achievements of the NHS over three-quarters of a century are remarkable and much spoken of. Ensuring our national health service has a healthy future cannot be taken for granted.

A new generation, born the day of the 75th anniversary, should be able to benefit from the NHS throughout their lifetime. But demand outpacing supply is the overarching challenge – among many – currently facing the service.

Preventing ill-health offers the biggest opportunity not only for people to enjoy a better quality of life, but as a key way to ensure the NHS can survive to care for future generations.

That’s why the Health and Social Care Committee that I chair is holding a major inquiry on prevention. Our findings will set a challenge for the government to boost prevention as one of the top health priorities, with clear direction on steps that ministers must take now.

We would do well to remember the original NHS was the health and housing department

In launching our inquiry, we invited submissions from stakeholders and the public to propose topics related to prevention. The response was staggering, with nearly 600 proposals in the first few weeks, demonstrating a real recognition of the value of work around preventing ill-health and its potential impact.

I must admit I have form here. When I was public health minister, I authored the Prevention Green Paper, highlighting the importance of physical activity in helping people maintain good health.

Physical inactivity has been associated with one in six deaths in the United Kingdom. The solution didn’t have to be expensive or involve joining a gym, but it had to be accessible. For example, active travel is a particularly effective way to build activity in people’s day to day lives. Even before the pandemic arrived, data showed almost one in five men and one in four women were classed as physically inactive. Sport England told us that today there are substantial opportunities to better utilise and promote the role of physical activity in preventative health.

To take this further, we’re examining the concept of what healthy places to live look like – not geographically, but measured instead by universal aspects such as access to leisure facilities and air quality, not only outdoors but in the homes where we live. Good quality housing is one of the building blocks of good health, with evidence pointing to preventable illness caused by mould and damp, and the shocking estimate that cold homes are responsible for around 10,000 deaths a year. In short, we would do well to remember the original NHS was the health and housing department!

There is a need for urgent work in prevention around risk factors associated with major diseases. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is responsible for a quarter of premature deaths in England but is largely preventable. Tackling CVD will help reduce the overall burden of disease: its risk factors are linked with cancer, dementia and diabetes.

One of the most significant modifiable risk factors is, of course, weight. Our inquiry will look specifically at healthy eating and obesity, reflecting the high number of proposals we received, with emphasis on the need to target interventions at a population-wide level. Many favoured industry regulation, however the government’s delayed buy-one-get-one-free junk food ban does not bode well. 

There is cause for optimism in work around cancer, developing personalised vaccines for example. Innovation has the potential to transform cancer diagnosis and treatment – our ongoing inquiry, Future Cancer, focuses on transitioning developments into frontline clinical settings.

Cancer prevention is a key workstream for our committee. The current consensus is that around 40 per cent of cancers could be preventable, with reducing smoking – a risk factor in so many cancers – a major priority.

The future sustainability of the NHS rests on us taking important steps in prevention to ensure that those born in its 75th year can view it as a service for wellness that has the capacity to treat them when they get ill. 


Steve Brine, Conservative MP for Winchester and chair of the Health and Social Care Committee

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