Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
As the build-up to the General Election rolls on, the health challenges we face as a nation have been centre stage, and the NHS one of the key campaign battlegrounds.
With our growing and ageing population, the NHS must constantly evolve to meet changing health care needs, from rising levels of obesity and diabetes to the threat of antibiotic resistance.
Here in the West Midlands the health statistics for our large, diverse population lay bare the health challenges we face. In some areas, 40 per cent of our Year 6 pupils are overweight or obese. Around 23.8 per cent of all adults in the West Midlands Region have some kind of mental health problem – a startling statistic which is actually only marginally higher than the national average of 23 per cent.
It is vital that we fund the facilities needed to tackle the future of health care, and investment in the NHS has rightly been one of the central themes of the Conservative campaign. We have run the NHS for 44 of its 71 years, and by committing to the biggest cash boost in its history we are sending a clear message that its future is safe in our hands.
Voters expect to see real investment. £33.9 billion – upgrading 20 hospitals and building 40 new ones – sets out the scale of our ambition. Yet our message may be lost in the heat of an election of competing financial pledges.
As Mayor of the West Midlands, the NHS is not strictly part of my job description – but I have always wanted to play my part in attracting investment and providing a link between the many agencies and organisations that impact on the health of our residents.
What I have seen is that while investment is critical, we also need all of these different organisations to work together – not just the NHS and GPs but hospices, councils, public health officials, academics, pharmacies, businesses and more. If we really want to show the electorate that we have a plan for the nation’s wellbeing, our ambitious investment in infrastructure should be complemented by a holistic approach to public health.
So, what are we doing about it here in the West Midlands?
Looking after our precious NHS
We are already seeing the fruits of new NHS spending. Work will soon resume on the £475 million Midland Metropolitan Hospital in Sandwell. Construction is expected to resume in December, almost two years on from the collapse of Carillion. This huge state-of-the-art hospital will provide the scale needed to cover Sandwell and West Birmingham.
Down the road in Walsall, more investment is ensuring that care is kept local. Walsall Manor Hospital has been given the green light for a new A&E department after the Government signed off on its £36 million funding bid.
In Birmingham, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has given the go-ahead for an investment in an Ambulatory Care and Diagnostics Centre (ACAD) at Heartlands hospital. The multi-million ACAD building will offer world-class facilities and house a wide range of health services, including outpatients, and endoscopy and imaging. University Hospitals Birmingham Trust estimates the centre will care for up to 1,500 patients every day.
Across the West Midlands, we are seeing real investment in the future of the NHS. We also benefit from a network of cherished hospices, who work hand-in-hand with the health service but rely heavily on the generosity of local people for financial support.
These days hospices not only provide superb palliative care, they also contribute to the mental wellbeing of local communities, organising out-patient care, bereavement counselling and social groups that extend far beyond their original remit.
I recently became patron of a campaign to save the much-loved Acorns children’s hospice in the Black Country, which is threatened with closure because of falling donations and increased costs. A phenomenal response from local people has seen £300,000 raised within just a few weeks towards their goal of £2million, but central support is vital if we are to acknowledge the important contribution of the hospice movement.
A lifeline has been delivered in the form of significant new NHS funding from Black Country healthcare commissioners, while NHS England are to double their central funding support to the country’s children’s hospices over the next five years.
It is great to see the billions being poured into the NHS in the West Midlands, and I have been hugely impressed by the determination shown by Matt Hancock.
Developing a world-class health and life sciences business sector
As the health challenges faced by our population change, the NHS must evolve, develop and adapt new treatments and approaches. The West Midlands is at the forefront of that medical innovation.
Birmingham is a world centre for accelerated clinical trials. The Institute of Translational Medicine, based on a site between the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the University of Birmingham, acts as a central hub for clinical trials, bringing experts together to rapidly turn medical science into innovative patient and healthcare system applications.
Birmingham University is building a new Life Sciences Park, supported by investment from the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership. Working in partnership with local hospitals, the council and industry the park will harness the region’s research strengths to develop better treatment and patient care.
And nowhere is the technological future of healthcare more evident than at University Hospitals in Birmingham, where 5G connectivity is linking hospital staff to ambulance crews to provide on-the-spot diagnostics in a UK-first trial. The same hospital is working on chat services, online symptom checkers and video consultations with doctors and nurses to help relieve the pressure on NHS services.
While disingenuous warnings about privatisation of the health service attempt to drive a wedge between the NHS and business, in the West Midlands we are seeing the tech sector working closely with clinicians to provide better services for people.
Prevention is the key
For the first 70 years of the NHS, we have concentrated on helping people live longer. Now we must move from thinking about life span to healthspan: the number of years we can keep people living healthy, independent lives free from illness or disability.
If the NHS is to truly benefit from the billions we have pledged to it, we need to also ensure that it is not hindered by endemic health problems within the population. That means, quite simply, we have to make people healthier before they get to A&E.
In the West Midlands, our holistic approach is encouraging people to do more exercise. Under the West Midlands ‘On the Move’ Strategic Framework, a variety of programmes are now being delivered, with more due to be launched in the near future, to tackle inactivity.
Programmes supported by the WMCA include Goodgym, through which people are encouraged to run to locations for community work, including befriending the elderly living in isolation. Goodgyms in Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull have attracted 450 volunteers since the first was rolled out in January 2017, completing more than 2,000 community deeds, with a fourth being launched in Warwick and Leamington Spa last month.
We are investing millions in schemes to boost cycling and walking, not only improving exercise rates but helping improve air quality in built-up areas. In the run-up to the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, we are unveiling policies that encourage people to try new sports.
Around 200 local businesses have been involved in our innovative Thrive At Work pilot scheme, which helps employers support staff with mental health concerns, as well as providing information on improving physical activity and a number other risk factors including poor diet, smoking and poor financial health.
By committing to the biggest cash boost in the history of the NHS, we Conservatives have shown that the future of the health service is safe in our hands. However, by taking the holistic approach to public health we are pioneering in the West Midlands, we can ensure that investment is effective for generations to come.