DeHavilland Policy Consultant Sophia Corfield has produced a health round-up from last week’s Conservative party conference.
- Industrial action provided the backdropped to this year’s Conservative conference with the BMA coordinating joint junior doctor and consultant strike action to coincide with Sunak’s first party conference as leader and PM.
- Three key announcements emerged from Health Secretary Steve Barclay’s conference speech: a new £30 million fund to speed up NHS technology innovation, an expansion of medical school places, and a consultation on the NHS constitution to address concerns about transgender women using wards intended for biologically female patients.
- Prime Minister Rishi Sunak used his keynote to position himself as an “agent of change” by announcing anti-smoking measures.
The health tech agenda featured heavily in fringe events throughout the conference, with Ministers dropping hints on the topic leading up to Tuesday’s conference speech from the Health Secretary.
During his speech, Steve Barclay unveiled Government plans to introduce a £30 million Health Technology Adoption and Acceleration Fund for the NHS – aimed at speeding up the rollout of new technology. Barclay said the grants will help bring cutting-edge innovation and new treatments to the NHS to cut waiting lists and improve patient care.
A key element of this announcement centres on how efficiency can be boosted to improve patient outcomes. At subsequent fringe events, Barclay went on to say his absolute focus as Secretary of State is patient outcomes and getting people diagnosed and treated quicker.
Unsurprisingly, tensions between Government and the BMA remained high as an undercurrent theme of the Conservative conference centred on workforce. Tensions were particularly palpable as doctors took to the streets of Manchester for the penultimate day of conference.
Barclay, who called the coordinated strikes “callous and calculated” in the lead-up to conference, continued this rhetoric during his In Conversation with Policy Exchange. Labelling the strikes “politically inspired”, Barclay reiterated that the Government’s pay offer is final but acquiesced he would be willing to negotiate on non-pay related terms.
This comment picked up on conversations taking place on workforce elsewhere – with much of the discourse centring on training and retention rather than pay. It was also picked up in the Health Secretary’s keynote when he announced three new NHS medical schools and an extra 200 undergraduate places from next year.
The announcement plays into the Government’s commitment to double medical school places to 15,000 by 2031 as part of Long-Term Workforce Plan.
“War on woke”
As part of the so-called war on woke, both Barclay and Science Secretary Michelle Donelan used coordinated messaging in their speeches to bring sex-specific language to their Departments. Barclay said he would launch a consultation on the NHS constitution to address concerns about transgender women using wards intended for biologically female patients. And Donelan announced a review into the use of sex and gender questions in scientific research and statistics, warning the “guiding light” of science is under attack from the “slow creep of wokeism”.
The announcements point to a wider shift in language of the party. The Financial Times team has listed six Cabinet speeches where trans and gender issues were raised. The article by Lucy Fisher says the move has sparked a backlash among Conservative MPs who are concerned about the party’s deepening politicisation of the subject.
Former DHSC Minister Lord Bethell has been consistent in his advocacy that a shift change is needed in health policy from treatment to prevention, and this conference has been no different. It seems that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has gotten on board with the prevention agenda – using his keynote to announce anti-smoking measures.
Speaking to conference Mr Sunak said he wants more preventative care and announced he will be bringing a free vote in the Commons on raising smoking by one year every year – so that someone 14 today would never be allowed to buy a cigarette.
As part of his ambition for a smoke-free Britain, he also said the Government will bring forward measures to restrict vaping.
DWP Secretary Mel Stride added to wider conversations taking place around how health can contribute to economic growth. Commenting on the “unsatisfactory” upward trend of economic inactivity due to long-term sickness, he announced the Government is looking at reforming work assessments.
Life sciences has consistently been earmarked as a key growth sector by the PM and Chancellor. However, a key theme to emerge from conference conversations was the UK’s declining clinical trial landscape. Indeed, many panellists argued it is the cornerstone of the UK achieving its global science superpower status.
On clinical trials, Barclay highlighted three key areas of concern. The time it takes for clinical trials to get set up, the inability to leverage private capital and the fact that the UK is falling behind other countries.
Much conversation on the topic centred on the Government commissioned O’Shaughnessy review. It has been widely praised by industry, and the next steps will be crucial in seeing which of its 27 recommendations the Government prioritises.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak began the year by setting out his five priorities for Government. But with the NHS waiting lists reaching record highs – Sunak’s promise to bring them down appears to be one of the most unobtainable on the list. While this shortcoming was acknowledged by the PM and Ministers during conference, it was attributed to ongoing, protracted industrial action.
In spite of this, a new Ipsos UK poll has found that public dissatisfaction has increased significantly with regards to the cutting of NHS waiting lists with 71% saying the Prime Minister is doing a bad job, up from 62% in May. This is a setback for Sunak who is trying to project himself as “agent for change”.
Indeed, the Conservatives record on the NHS may prove to be its achilles heel at the next election with former health SpAd Richard Sloggett suggesting the Conservatives’ standing has been undermined by their failure to deliver on many of the 2019 health pledges.