Blog post

NHS at heart of UK life sciences vision

Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, reflects on the new ‘vision’ and 10-year strategy for UK life sciences.
Layla McCay

10 September 2021

The vision and the NHS

The pandemic has put the life-saving work of our NHS in the spotlight. After years of NHS underinvestment, it is great to see health and life sciences at the top of the government’s agenda. The government’s new ‘vision’ report aims to build on the scientific successes and ways of working post COVID-19 to tackle future disease challenges – or silent pandemics – including cancer, obesity, dementia, ageing and mental health. The NHS stands ready to play it part in making this ‘vision’ a reality.

The health service is critical to the delivery of nearly every element at both a national and operational level. The report focuses on early disease intervention, with a new approach to delivering innovations for major diseases, which includes predictive and monitoring technologies, and genomics and data to help prevent, detect and diagnose, as well as to treat disease early, rather than concentrating on late-stage disease. This is in line with the commitments in the NHS Long Term Plan. The ‘vision’ outlines seven critical healthcare missions that the NHS, government, industry, academia and medical research charities will work together on at speed to solve – from cancer treatment to increasing the understanding of mental health conditions.

One specific mission for mental health research, and not just dementia, is extremely welcome and long overdue. After 16 months of COVID-19 restrictions, it is estimated that an additional 10 million patients are expected to need new or additional support for their mental health - a new silent pandemic.

Collaboration is crucial

What the last 16 months have taught us is when united by a common goal, we can achieve the remarkable. It is the seamless collaboration between the NHS, scientists, industry and regulators that has saved millions of lives during a pandemic. The drug dexamethasone alone has saved around one million lives worldwide since its discovery as an effective COVID-19 treatment following a collaboration between 175 NHS Trusts and Oxford University. We must now work together to make sure this sector-wide collaboration becomes standardardised.

The strategy promotes this partnership approach and crucially, places the NHS at its heart. Together and through this kind of partnership, the NHS will be able to help to accelerate the development of new drugs, diagnostics, medical technology and digital tools to deliver life-changing innovations to patients. It is through continuing this deeper end-to-end collaboration and more coordinated co-investment between the NHS and the government that we will collectively deliver an impact that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts.

Pre-conditions for success

The ‘vision’ also outlines four pre-conditions for success. With the NHS central to its success and delivery as an innovative partner, it is vital that it is provided with sufficient support and investment.

It must be recognised that the NHS is still grappling with a pandemic, a huge COVID-19 vaccination and booster programme, staff shortages and fatigue. The NHS is committed to driving forward innovation and the ‘Vision’ for the life sciences sector but cannot do so alone and unsupported.

Health data is another precondition, and it is great to see ‘public engagement’ ‘transparent use’ and ‘build[ing] public trust’ explicitly referenced. However, this pledge must translate into meaningful action. The government has not done itself any favours with regard to building transparency and trust regarding data through the pandemic. This has been evidenced by the National Audit Office report and legal action against NHSE regarding the Covid-19 Data store.  Lessons should be learnt to ensure engagement is meaningful, empowering and directly addresses citizens’ concerns.  

Finally, this ‘vision’ cannot be achieved without financial investment, and we welcome the £1 billion of new funding available. This is a partnership approach between the NHS, government and industry so the health service will need its fair share of this funding, so we await the conclusion of the government’s forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review this autumn.

Ultimately, we welcome the ‘Life Sciences Vision’ and stand ready to play our part in making it a reality. We are pleased that it supports and builds on our hard-won gains during the pandemic, setting the direction for the industry in a post-pandemic world.

Dr Layla McCay is director of policy at the NHS Confederation. Follow her and the organisation on Twitter @LaylaMcCay @nhsconfed.