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What next for health? The weeks that have seen a whirlwind in Whitehall.

It won’t have escaped your attention that the debris from the PM’s recent reshuffle has left industry and policy makers with more questions than it has answers. This comes at a critical time for the healthcare system, particularly ahead of the winter period. ‘Levelling Up’ is the agenda. Covid has highlighted the extent of health inequalities across the UK. In her latest blog, Ursula Ritz considers the implications of the change of senior leadership at DHSC and NHSE for existing priorities, including for those of us committed to ensuring the best and innovative drugs make it to patients.

Harold Wilson famously quoted that a week is a long time in politics. The PM’s latest reshuffle, Amanda Pritchard’s appointment to NHSE, as well as health policy taking centre stage at the Conservative Party Conference, it leaves one to question whether these radical leadership changesare a wise move at such a critical time for the UK’s healthcare system.

‘Build back better’ – that’s what we’re told is the focus of the administration. Sajid Javid outlined in his inaugural conference speech as Health Secretary that the primary objective for DHSC will be to set health provision back on track post-pandemic, whilst also addressing the startling 13 million patients currently on NHS waiting lists, at the same time warning that things are likely to ‘get worse before they get better’. If you then account for other diagnostic challenges for serious illnesses such as cancer and diabetes, you can be forgiven for thinking there is a particularly long way to go before we reach the pre-pandemic status-quo, which itself wasn’t devoid of long waiting lists and winter pressures.

The Health Secretary’s appointment in June this year came as no surprise to many political commentators, having held a solid track record of working with the PM in previous years as part of EU Exit and with a shared ambition for leadership within the Conservative Party. Javid is known to not shy away from difficult issues, having held some of the most prominent ministerial positions in Whitehall, including those of the Home Secretary and Chancellor in recent years. Whilst still relatively new to the world of healthcare, his tenure commenced with a defiant stand on the lifting of lockdown restrictions over the summer, a decision clearly shared with that of the PM. With two of the most powerful people in the country (seemingly) aligned on how to ‘get the job done’, where does this leave Javid’s ministerial team, as well as the NHS’ senior leadership in the long road to recovery?

NHSE Chief Executive, Amanda Pritchard, will certainly have her (and the wider NHS’) work cut out for them. The Health and Social Care Bill continues to make its way through the legislative mill, promising to deliver on a number of fundamental reforms to the governance and accountability of the organisation, as outlined in the NHS Long Term Plan. To implement such substantial changes at the same time as local and national public services recover from COVID, could be widely seen as an unenviable task, and it seems a substantial amount of hope has been placed on the successful implementation of Integrated Care Systems in order to minimise the risk of a potentially damaging winter period. This will also be Pritchard’s first winter as NHSE Chief and will therefore be under a lot of pressure to work extremely closely with DHSC and Number 10 to keep reputational, policy and political plates spinning as booster jabs, the Bill passage, and resource issues (to name but a few) all heighten in the lead up to 2022.

Whilst the Health and Social Care Bill will see DHSC awarded with a greater degree of scrutiny over NHS management than we have seen for several years, any political point scoring in the media or in Parliament at the NHS’ expense would be unwise. The DHSC ministerial class of 2021 is fresh-faced and will inevitably need to hit the ground running to deliver on NHS Long Term plan promises, with little capacity for diversion from pre-agreed strategies. Javid and Pritchard will need to jointly steer the NHS helm to ensure clear and honest communication is at the apex of healthcare decision making. Actions (and results) will speak louder than words in the language of this government.

So, what does this mean for the rest of us outside of the Westminster bubble?

We must both widen and deepen our understanding of the new NHS landscapeand the political environment in which it operates – both on a local and national level. Levelling Up is a core element of how the government intends to ‘build back better’, and that demands a review of how we as industry leaders can not only inform business and engagement strategies to develop and integrate new therapies from the lab to our hospital wards, but that we ourselves provide the thought leadership and be the voice of what does and doesn’t work in the new world. ICSs have the potential to represent the very best from our communities, and at their core, are based on the spirit of collaboration to create positive outcomes for local people. No matter what is happening in SW1, we must also roll up our sleeves to understand, engage and deliver on core issues facing patients and healthcare providers, and provide those solutions no matter who may be in charge at the helm.

There is no doubt a long winter ahead, but we at Hanover stand ready with you to endure the weather, come rain or shine, together.

11th October 2021

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