My Lords, in opening this debate, I declare my interest. I am a practising surgeon in the NHS at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, and the Royal Marsden and am the chair of surgery at Imperial College. I proudly sit as a non-executive director of NHS Improvement. Over the past 10 months, I have led an independent review of the health and care system with the Institute for Public Policy Research.
As a surgeon and a former Health Minister, it is a great honour to speak in this place to mark the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service. The NHS is this country’s most treasured institution. It touches our lives at times of the most basic human need when care and compassion matter most. This is a time for reflection to celebrate the institution and give thanks to NHS staff for their service to our nation, and to look to the future.
The NHS is the expression of the moral principle that no one should be denied healthcare because of their means—the idea that the provision of healthcare should be based on need and not the ability to pay. Most people alive today cannot recall the time before the health service was created. With each passing year, the number of people who can recall the pre-NHS era recedes, but if we are to secure its future we must never forget what preceded it.
A friend recently told me the story of his family. His parent worked in the textile mills in Lancashire that have long since disappeared. In the simple kitchen there were two sugar bowls. One was for the sugar and the other for the doctor. It was where they would save a penny or two whenever they could so that, if any member of the family got sick, they could pay for a visit to a doctor. Fear of falling sick was a normal part of daily life in Britain. Illness was the surest path to poverty and destitution, not just for the individuals but for whole families. The founding of the NHS took that fear away for millions and it is a fear that those of us born since have never known and can only imagine.
The NHS was the greatest achievement of the post-war Labour Government. We owe an eternal debt of gratitude to Nye Bevan for his vision, passion and determination to establish the health service. He memorably described the NHS as taking the place of fear. It remains one of the most extraordinary achievements of any society anywhere in the world. It is on occasions such as the 70th anniversary that we must make and remake the case for comprehensive, universal healthcare, free at the point of need for all.
Never let anyone tell you that we cannot afford the NHS. The moral principle of universal access to healthcare is shared by all people everywhere. Those countries that have made it a reality have done so in different ways, but by far the most efficient, dignified and lowest cost is to create a universal service free at the point of need funded by taxation. Private insurance and social insurance systems are much more costly. Those who argue that we cannot afford the NHS are seriously wrong. It is a fundamental error of logic to say that something is unaffordable so we should make the move to something more expensive.
The NHS is funded by us all. It serves each of us and it reflects the best of us. The health service employs 1.5 million people across the four nations of the United Kingdom—that is 5% of all working people in our country. The NHS is its people, not only the doctors and nurses but clinicians of all kinds and the porters, cooks, cleaners and, yes, the vital managers and administrators too. Spending a day working as a porter in the NHS was one of the most illuminating moments of my career. Every member of Team NHS matters. Every one has a contribution to make and each is valuable. I pay tribute to the NHS employees of today who are my colleagues, and to the NHS staff of previous generations. On this day of thanksgiving, we owe them a lasting debt of gratitude.
I have worked in the NHS for longer than I have been a citizen of this country. In a time of great anxiety, I pay a special tribute to the citizens of other countries who have helped to build our NHS throughout its existence and remain the backbone of it today. From the Windrush generation to the European citizens and nationals of every race and creed, from every corner of the world today, they have made an immeasurable contribution. Let that never be forgotten.
NHS staff work at the frontiers of innovation because healthcare exists at the limits of science. This country is a scientific superpower with an extraordinary record of discovery and invention, yet in recent years we have fallen behind on investments in R&D. R&D is the engine of innovation yet R&D spending as a share of GDP has been falling while our competitors have invested more. We need a new commitment to be at the top quartile of advanced countries for R&D investment. The future prosperity of our country depends on it.
Many of the most important medical discoveries took place in this country, often through partnership between the NHS and the universities. No matter the challenges, we are constantly finding new ways to treat disease and soothe pain and suffering. That means that high-quality care is constantly a moving target: to stand still is to fall back. What energises NHS staff is relentlessly improving the quality of care they deliver to their patients. In my review of the NHS with the IPPR we found that, on a wide range of measures, the NHS has maintained and improved the quality of care it provides. Fewer people are harmed and more people are cured than ever before. There is a huge amount to celebrate and to be proud of, yet we should frankly acknowledge the difficulties the health service has faced. The past decade has been the most austere since the health service was founded. Waiting times have risen considerably and the system has been subject to needless destructive reforms. The NHS is not failing, but it is fragile.
A properly funded NHS is the foundation on which a fair, cohesive and inclusive society is built, so the new funding settlement announced by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Health is very welcome. My friend the noble Lord, Lord Prior, and I, together with the IPPR, recommended a 3.5% annual funding increase: the Government came close, with 3.4%. However, the settlement did not include public health, capital investment or education and training. Each of these is vital and the Government must now deliver on them too.
Securing the NHS is an eternal task. It is no more perfect than life itself. That is why new investment must be joined with reform. Together with the noble Lord, Lord Prior, and the IPPR, I set out a 10-point plan for a 21st-century NHS. At its heart is a new vision, what we call “neighbourhood NHS”, where services are organised around groups of patients with broadly similar needs, rather than groups of professionals with broadly similar skills. We argue that there should be a new option for single integrated care trusts, able to take responsibility for all the health and care needs of a population.
Warm words on mental health must be followed by bold actions. Parity of esteem should mean parity of service. Bringing care closer to people is a crucial principle for a modern NHS, yet for too long the NHS has said it would invest more in care closer to people yet continues to do the inverse of its stated strategy. Each year we say that resources will shift and each year they flow upwards towards hospitals rather than outwards towards communities. That is why we must lock in more spending on primary, community and mental health services each year in the decade ahead.
As we celebrate the past on this anniversary day, we must also look to the future. It is our duty to seize all the technological opportunities that this new era offers. There must be a tilt towards tech to create a digital-first health and care system. That will demand investment in digital infrastructure, improved data sharing and embracing full automation. Many people fear that automation will destroy jobs, but it is much more likely to reshape them by taking away mundane tasks that fill most of our time working in the NHS. This will release more time to care and give more space for clinical reasoning, for research and for innovation.
I have spent decades developing robotic surgery. The robots have yet to replace me, but they have helped me deliver higher-quality care to my patients. For all these improvements to happen, we need a radical simplification of the system. It has become impossibly complicated and is in desperate need of change. I therefore welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to bring forward legislative change. Tinkering at the edges will not be enough: we need fundamental reform. Above all else, we need to confront the great social challenge of today, which is social care, as we heard earlier.
When the NHS was founded, life expectancy for men was 66 and for women it was just 71. Today, it is 79 and 83 respectively. Today, one-quarter of NHS beds are occupied by patients who are medically fit to go home, if there were good enough support for them. More than £3 billion a year of NHS money is wasted by delayed transfers or transitions of care. If Bevan were designing the health service today, it is unimaginable that he would have excluded social care. We must now extend that simple, noble, brilliant principle of care based on need rather than the ability to pay from the NHS and apply it to social care.
Social care reform has become the third rail of British politics: any politician touching it swiftly expires. Between now and 2030 the number of people over the age of 65 will increase by about one-third and the number of those over 85 will nearly double. At the same time, the working-age population will increase by just about 3%. If we do not act now, a heavy burden will fall on families to take care of their relatives. Since 2010, social care has been slashed. Despite rising demand, state social care has plummeted by 27%. That does not mean that less care has been provided. There has been a dramatic rise in informal care. Critics will argue that the older generation should contribute more of their wealth to pay for social care, particularly the wealth locked up in housing, but tying social care reform to the thorny issue of wealth inequality and taxation is wrong. If we make that hurdle for social care reform, there will be no progress at all. Surely, the level of personal wealth is a better basis for wealth taxation than the need for social care.
Better social care means that families spend less time on functional tasks and more time on relationships. If we want a less lonely and more dignified future for our ageing society, now is the time to act. There could be no better birthday present for the health service. It has been a privilege for me to open this debate, but it has been the greatest honour of my life serving the National Health Service for nearly 30 years. In 30 years from today I hope to see the NHS’s centenary. It is a great comfort to know, for me just as for all of us, that the NHS will be there to provide care and compassion when it matters most.