10 June 2019

A healthier, wealthier nation

By Matt Hancock MP

We have a moment over the next few years, and an urgent need, to define ourselves as a nation, both to ourselves and to the world, and to settle our view of what post-Brexit Britain is to become.

We need to draw deep and learn from our history to build a brighter future, and then bring people together. We can never build a full consensus around Britain’s identity: there will rightly always be debate. But a common consensus on some things does matter.

And where should the Conservative Party be in that debate?

A future-focused Conservative Party

I believe that a modern, reforming Conservative government must always look  everywhere for improvement. For ideas and inspiration, and then, in this era of populist solutions, deliver practical change – radical where it needs to be, but radical for improvement’s sake, not for its own. If you agree with that approach, so far so good.

So what does that mean today?

I think it means a strong focus on the domestic: delivery of a strong economy to underpin strong taxpayer-funded public services. And in turn, for the sake of both the economy and public services, it means being radically in favour of encouraging, adopting and attracting innovation.

After all, we stand on the cusp of a technological revolution that is set to deliver unprecedented opportunities and advances. To prove to people we should be trusted with their future, we must be enthusiastic about building that future.

We are at a moment of change that is both daunting and exciting. We are experiencing the fastest pace of change in history: and it’s accelerating, meaning that the pace of change we are living through now will actually be the slowest compared with the rest of our lives. As Conservatives we must embrace this change and support people through it.

There’s a common consensus that new technology is set to create new opportunities and frontiers in areas of our daily lives such as financial services, energy, transport, retail, media and healthcare. Where there is not yet consensus is that this is exciting for our economy and that we must constantly look to change the way our economy works – and is regulated – to embrace it. Or that it matters for public services too. Traditional models for our public services and huge swathes of industries are ready to be improved, some would say disrupted, creating unparalleled levels of change across our society.

Some argue that this change needs to be slowed, resisted and actively fought against. They argue that technology is already having a detrimental impact on our lives and our wellbeing and that this will only get worse in the years ahead.

Jeremy Corbyn favours a tax on robots, echoing Luddites who smashed looms two centuries ago. But technology has the potential to be the great enabler for a new era of progress for our country. It can empower and inspire people in new ways and enable the state to support them to maximise their potential. This transformation isn’t dry and technological: and we mustn’t allow ourselves to talk about it in dry and technological ways.

As Conservatives it is our moral mission to provide security and opportunity to all people, regardless of background. And we best fulfil that moral mission by shaping a brighter future for our nation. It is when we have sought this challenge that we have been successful and our nation has become more open and prosperous as a result.

Throughout history we have shown we’re at our best when we’re in favour of the future. And where new technology throws up problems, like the impact of social media on mental health, the answer is not to resist new technology, but instead for us to develop it properly, embrace it, support it and nurture it so as many people as possible can benefit from it.

Technology on its own is not a silver bullet. It is nothing without people. And we need to bring people with us. Anyone involved in largescale technology programmes knows that 90 per cent of the challenge comes from people: supporting people, training people, resourcing people and reassuring people.

We need to create a new culture between technology and people in our country, and an attitude that supports the search for new ideas and embraces the dynamic changes that are coming.

And while I firmly believe our focus must be domestic, this is exactly the same attitude we need to define ourselves around the world.

Post-Brexit Britain can be a free, radical nation, building alliances around the world, always at the cusp, always excited about opportunities, setting examples and standards and leading this change. Working with different countries where they excel – with our friends in Europe of course – and also in the United States, the Commonwealth, in China and the Far East.

Just as we became a dominant force in the past because we were the pioneers of the first Industrial Revolution, so we must be at the cutting edge to be a force in the face of the Fourth.

And in turn, to do that, we must win the argument for an open, ambitious, gregarious nation that confidently looks out to the open seas, embracing of change and engaging with all. Internationally, that is the great modern Conservative challenge.

Making Britain a global healthcare leader

Technological innovation in healthcare is one area that’s close to my heart and presents some of the most exciting advances and transformational potential.

It is a great privilege to be the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care at such an exciting time. I love leading the charge in the development, adoption and spread of new technology across the NHS.

In the coming years we will see the development of ever more precise treatments to target disease, new cures to tackle global killers, the use of artificial intelligence to diagnose conditions earlier and genomics to predict family and hereditary illness, and more accurate personal technology to support healthier lifestyles and independent living.

As Secretary of State I have seen and met with developers of some of these cutting-edge technologies here in the UK and the level of innovation is mind-blowing. We have a massive opportunity, not least as the new technologies of big data give the NHS a special advantage.

New intuitive data sets that can better support local areas in meeting the health and care needs of their populations.

The use of robotics to deliver cutting-edge surgery with fewer errors in record time.

New software to support the remote monitoring of patients and independent living.

People may be surprised, but the NHS is already leading among health systems for technology, and more change is coming soon.

Video consultations to improve the access and flexibility of primary care appointments. Wearables that track vital signs and incentivise heavier lifestyle behaviours. New models for online pharmacy to dispense prescriptions and reduce pressures on GPs.

There are two new technologies in particular with the potential to change everything: the combination of artificial intelligence and genomics. They promise the potential to unlock our genetic codes; and allow us to apply those codes to how we live our lives. To predict which of us are susceptible to which illnesses, to diagnose those already ill faster, and to develop new tailor-made treatments to bring people back to health.

Together, they will transform medicine. We are finally now able to crack that genetic factor of our health. We can intervene earlier. Save money on unnecessary and invasive tests. Eliminate waste by prescribing the right medication or the right treatment the first time round. And save NHS resources for people who really need them.

We are, though, only at the foothills of what is possible. I am determined that the NHS will be at the forefront of adoption of these new technologies, technologies that can deliver improved outcomes for patients and a more effective healthcare system.

The NHS is something of which we can all be rightly proud. It has been there for all of us from cradle to grave and the people who work within it day in day out deserve our utmost gratitude and support.

But I want the NHS to be the best healthcare service in the world. And with our 10 Year Long Term Plan supported by an extra £20.5 billion of funding, we have a unique opportunity to make it so. To deliver a safer, better and more efficient NHS is what we as Conservatives believe in. This is good for patients. Good for the hard-working NHS staff member. And good for the taxpayer.

Now I know there is some scepticism about whether the NHS is ready for this. For too long the NHS has put technology in the ‘too difficult’ box. The adoption and utilisation of new technology has been too varied and piecemeal. Getting new technology into the NHS from companies, developers and entrepreneurs has proved a frustrating and painstakingly slow process. The legacies of past failures such as Labour’s National Programme for IT still linger.

This has all meant that a number of our services being run by GPs and hospitals are not only outdated but they are frankly not safe or fit for purpose for a leading healthcare system. Last year I published a new tech vision for the NHS, setting out new standards of operability and effectiveness aimed at expediting change in the way the NHS adopts and deploys technology.

So the days of the NHS putting technology in the ‘too difficult’ box are over. And the NHS is responding.

Since becoming Secretary of State, I have been delighted at how much energy and drive there is within the system to deliver the change that is needed. Our NHS is taking up the challenge to bring better outcomes for our nation, whether that be integrating health records across care settings, updating outdated staff systems, developing our new NHS app or unleashing new cutting-edge technology for patients.

A new model of prevention to support a healthier nation

Getting our NHS match-fit is critical for us to improve the health of our people. But this needs to be complemented by a fundamental shift to prevention. We need to move away from treating single acute illnesses to promoting the health of the whole individual and empowering our people to live healthier, happier, freer lives.

Prevention is better than cure, prevention is the future and prevention works. It saves lives and saves money. Two of the biggest health successes of the 20th century had prevention at their core: vaccination and cutting smoking. In the UK, both were achieved by careful and considered government intervention.

We didn’t outlaw cigarettes, because blanket bans curtail personal freedoms and often have the opposite effect to that intended. We encouraged better behaviour through informing the public and by stopping smoking in public places where it could affect the health of others. We didn’t compel people to vaccinate against their will. We helped them see it was in their interests and everybody else’s too.

We are about to enter a new phase of predictive prevention, where we use technology to get the right, persuasive messages to people, instead of treating everyone the same – moving from prevention across the population as a whole to targeted prevention.

Take alcohol. Like many people, I enjoy the odd glass of wine. I supported the Budget, in which we froze duty on scotch and beer. I don’t believe in punishing the masses to target those who need help. Yet alcohol abuse puts a huge burden on the NHS. High-risk drinkers make up less than 5 per cent of the population but consume over a third of all alcohol.

They’re more likely to end up in A&E. And drunk people are more likely to be responsible for abuse and violent attacks on NHS staff. I’ve seen it for myself. So we need action on alcohol that targets those who most need our support, without punishing those who don’t. Likewise, we know that smoking contributes to 4 per cent of all hospital admissions in England each year. And smoking costs the NHS around £2.5 billion each year, despite the massive reduction in smoking over the past 30 years.

For smoking, the next step towards a zero-smoking society is highly targeted anti-smoking interventions, especially in hospitals. If someone is admitted as a heart patient, and we know that stopping smoking could save their life, then we will do everything we can to help them quit, as they do in Ottawa. This is a Canadian model I like the look of. I want to see bedside interventions in our hospitals so smokers who are patients are offered medication, behavioural support and follow-up checks when they go home.

The opportunity for our people and the NHS through adopting new technology is also significant for our country as we enter a new place in the world. There are some who see the solution to our country’s problems as becoming more insular, defensive and withdrawn. I do not agree.

The UK has a long and proud history of leading the world in developing advances and breakthroughs in healthcare. The first vaccine was developed here. Florence Nightingale pioneered her modern nursing practices in the 19th century here. Alexander Fleming undertook his ground-breaking research on the use of penicillin here.

In recent times, and under Conservative stewardship, we have led the world on efforts to tackle anti-microbial resistance and build alliances across governments, businesses, scientists, doctors, charities and patients to try to discover new treatments for people with dementia. More recently, the world-leading 100,000 genome project established by David Cameron has just mapped the 100,000th genome, and we’re now expanding to one million.We must cherish and learn from this history, without being captured by it.

Health is just one area, of course. Across the board, this is the Conservative vision for modern Britain we must strive for: leading the world in the cutting edge by embracing the potential of tomorrow.

Winning the battle of ideas will bear fruits for us all if we succeed. We can do so all the while facing outward to the world, with this global vision for the future. It’s an exciting prospect and we’ve no time to lose.

This article first appeared in ‘Britain Beyond Brexit’, a collection of essays published by the Centre for Policy Studies. You can purchase a copy of the book HERE.

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Matt Hancock is the Conservative Member of Parliament for West Suffolk and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.