Having served as Labour’s first ever Shadow Cabinet Minister for Mental Health, and now, as a member of the Health Select Committee and President of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health, I have witnessed close up the shifting landscape of healthcare in our country.
The conditions in which our National Health Service (NHS) operates are becoming progressively challenging. The system is having to adapt and respond to the complex and changing needs of a growing, older population. In some areas this has led to great innovation and examples of best practice, while in others, understaffed and underfunded services have put frontline professionals under significant pressure and threatened patient care.
There have been huge strides forward overcoming the stigma around mental health. More people than ever feel empowered to be open about their problems. This mounting acceptance should be met with adequate services, yet we know they are buckling under the strain. Health inequalities continue to widen and there is an alarming North–South divide in health outcomes. Social care has dominated much of the debate on health while it has become clear that our current model is unsustainable. More broadly, the NHS must weather the effects of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union.
There has been a move away from public health interventions. Local government, which took on responsibility for public health in 2013, has seen falling budgets which have demanded difficult decisions. There has been a decline in services for substance misuse, sexual health and smoking cessation. The principle of these interventions is to keep people well before they become ill. This deprioritisation of public health shines a spotlight on a familiar conundrum. Should money be spent now to promote savings tomorrow? As the NHS contends with more lifestyle related diseases, this underinvestment in prevention will increasingly be questioned.
No institution reaches as deep into our national consciousness as the NHS. I hope ministers heed public opinion when making choices about how to allocate resources and ensure the health service, free at the point of use to all who need it, is here for generations to come.