While his campaign was unsurprisingly focused on Brexit, with pledges around technology and business occasionally making an appearance, Boris Johnson’s leadership bid was relatively quiet on his ambitions for the health service and life sciences industry. It therefore came as a surprise to some that since taking office, Johnson has made supporting the NHS a key priority and Whitehall sources have indicated that there will be more announcements to come when MPs return from recess.
On his first day as Prime Minister, he announced that he would ensure more money reaches the front lines of the NHS and promised to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”, while also citing the life sciences sector as a prime example of why not to “underestimate Britain”. His sentiments support the indication that the Government are keen to promote the value of the health system and the UK’s prowess in artificial intelligence (AI), genomics and pharmaceuticals as case studies of British success as we prepare to leave the EU.
This will be, by no means, an easy task. The £1.8bn he recently committed towards upgrading hospital facilities and equipment in 20 hospitals has been welcomed by NHS England’s Chief Executive, Simon Stevens, but described by think tanks and health charities a fraction of the true cost of upgrading 20 hospitals, which already have a combined maintenance backlog of £6bn.
Johnson has also unveiled plans for a £250 million AI lab to form part of NHSX, which is overseeing the digitalisation and data usage of the health service. The lab is expected to bring together academics, doctors and experts in the field of AI to increase its uptake across the NHS and explore ways in which it can be used to improve cancer screenings and diagnose diseases such as dementia. The lab will sit within NHSX, in partnership with the Accelerated Access Collaborative, further demonstrating that the role of the Collaborative has shifted into an umbrella organisation that will likely shape the future of health innovation under Johnson’s premiership.
These announcements suggest that Johnson, like Matt Hancock, is committed to utilising health technologies to support British innovations and drive growth in the life sciences industry while benefiting both patient outcomes and time-pressed clinicians. He will, however, have to be careful in how he chooses to allocate funding. Research by The King’s Fund published in 2017 found that the £1.2bn of money spent on research and development on innovation vastly outweighed the £50m spent on actually supporting the adoption and spread of technologies through the health system. Johnson must ensure that while developing new exciting technologies remains a priority, support must also be given to providers and innovators seeking to increase the uptake of existing, cost-saving technologies across the health system.
One area that we may expect to see greater focus on is prevention and public health. Hancock is championing the importance of keeping people healthy and out of hospital to ease pressures on NHS services and apps, devices and wearables that enable greater self-care and keep people out of hospitals will likely be welcome advances. The Prevention Green Paper, published in the last days of May’s premiership, was a welcome commitment and bodies from across the health sector are hopeful that the incumbent Prime Minister turns these proposals into policy.
While we can therefore hope that Johnson may give health service a few more cash giveaways in the coming months, these recent commitments towards health spending may be signs that the Government are preparing for a general election. In order to boost the Conservative’s razor thin majority Johnson must carefully navigate the pressures of harnessing the potential of the life sciences sector, balancing the books and protecting a health service that remains a national treasure to many.