Access to Migraine Treatment — [David Mundell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:26 am on 20 March 2024.

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Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Shadow Minister (Health) 10:26, 20 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank Dehenna Davison for opening the debate and sharing her personal experience of how the condition has affected her, which was very powerful for others to hear. We have heard some fantastic contributions today. We know that one in seven people in the UK are living with migraine, and that women are disproportionately affected. I agree with the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Caroline Nokes, that this needs to be addressed. Women are under-represented in research and development more generally and we need to understand why—beyond reproductive issues—in the women’s health strategy.

Migraine attacks can be hugely debilitating. They can last between four and 72 hours or even longer, often causing pain, vomiting and dizziness. We have heard from the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North about the impact on children, and very movingly from Sir Gavin Williamson about the all-consuming impact on family life. They affect every part of life, including social life, education and employment, yet they are often misunderstood and under-diagnosed.

Migraines affect people’s ability to access full employment, with 29% of those who suffer reporting that they have had to move from full time to part-time work, and a further 25% having left a job altogether. People listening to this debate who might think they are in control of their careers—maybe even at the Dispatch Box—will find it very powerful to understand that they are not alone. This adds to the number of people who are economically inactive because of long-term sickness, which has risen to more than 2.5 million—an increase of more than 400,000 since the start of the pandemic. That has a huge impact on our economy and on individuals’ health, wellbeing and ability to support themselves and their families.

I am deeply concerned that the measures laid out by the Government to tackle the leading health-related causes of economic inactivity are not ambitious enough. I join the former Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire, in exhorting the Government to take greater action and governance. The Access to Work scheme faces huge backlog, so we want to hear from the Minister today what the Government can do to support those suffering from debilitating migraines and help them access work.

Furthermore, support from employers is vital to everyone living with chronic migraines. We have heard a debate about whether this should be considered a disability, but even those who are identified as disabled and are working for Disability Confident employers do not report much better experiences than those working for employers that are not members of that scheme. We need more action from the Government to ensure that disabled people and those with long-term conditions such as chronic migraine can access the support they need at work.

As with too many medical conditions, waiting lists are long. Once someone is diagnosed, it can take up to 29 weeks for them to access a neurologist or headache specialist. Fourteen years of Government mismanagement have left our NHS unable to deliver a full and comprehensive range of health services, which is impacting on care and treatment for migraines.

That is why Labour will build an NHS fit for the future, providing it with the staff, technology, resources and reform that it needs to improve patient care, cutting waiting lists and ensuring timely diagnosis and treatment for the millions of people affected by migraine by getting the NHS working around the clock. That will give staff the opportunity to earn more for working weekends and evening shifts. Getting local hospitals working together will mean that the NHS can deliver the extra 2 million operations, scans and operations a year that are needed. What measures will the Minister take to tackle those waiting lists, particularly the services around neurology?

We have heard today how new treatments can give hope to those suffering from migraines. CGRP antibody medicines have been approved by NICE to prevent migraine in adults. However, as we have heard, only 52% of sufferers are offered them; people have to take a long route before becoming eligible. NICE last updated its guidance in this area in 2021. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister is having further discussions with NICE about ensuring wider access to migraine treatments.

Migraine is a condition that can be isolating and debilitating. We know that pressures on mental health services are acute, but with 78% of respondents to the Migraine Trust’s survey saying that migraine impacts their mental health and 65% reporting that they have experienced anxiety as a result of migraine, it is vital that we consider the mental health impacts of living with migraine.

I am keen to see Labour’s proposals for a whole-Government strategy to improve mental health outcomes and make early interventions becoming a reality for people. That is why the next Labour Government would implement an ambitious plan to cut waiting lists by recruiting over 8,500 additional mental health staff, providing access to mental health support in every school and delivering an open-access mental health hub for children and young people in every community. That would help to redress the current situation in which young people and children do not have sufficient understanding of the debilitating effects of this illness.

Finally, further research into migraine is really important, because we still do not fully understand what causes it; the SNP spokesman spoke very eloquently about the need for research into its causes. We would support our research community with a new regulatory innovation office, which would make Britain the best place in the world to innovate by speeding up decisions and providing clear direction based on a modern industrial strategy. The new office would help to improve outcomes for those living with migraine, tackling the NHS backlog by accelerating the approval for clinical trials, the number of which has fallen off a cliff under this Government, and delivering better access for patients to the latest treatments.

Those living with migraine should be able to access care when and where they need it, and the next Labour Government will ensure that we have the staff and resources needed to improve waiting lists and the right research environment, which would improve access to new treatments.