20 October, 2023

It can be difficult when you have been in the middle of political party conferences to know what exactly has cut through to the outside world. However, it also gives you a strong feel for the mood amongst the largest parties. This factor is sometimes overlooked in policymaking. Decisions are often more influenced than we think by how confident a government feels.  

The Conservative conference

Unsurprisingly, with a general election expected in autumn 2024, the Conservative conference felt flatter and a little more tense. Labour’s conference had a general sense of confidence, albeit with an anxiety not to say anything too controversial.  

No one analysing our current government would suggest it has the green/eco conviction that previous Conservative governments saw as a strength. Still, I was staggered that Thérèse Coffey MP (Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) mentioned chemicals just once in her speech. Only to acknowledge that they were covered in her remit. Things like this make us increasingly sceptical about the promise to publish a Chemicals Strategy this year.   

Shadow Minister for Farming, Food and Fisheries, Daniel Zeichner MP, was happy to talk about chemicals in the environment. Admittedly at an event put on by our friends at the Pesticide Action Network. However, it soon became apparent that shadow ministers had been asked to limit how much they discussed Brexit and the future relationship between the EU and the UK.

“That’s a big gap in the conversation when we’re talking about chemical regulation.”

At the official event to discuss Labour’s approach to the future relationship, we got no further than the already known commitments to not rejoining the Single Market. However, there was some joy at the decision to rejoin Horizon 

“I was pleased to hear from the Health Secretary and the Shadow Health Secretary in smaller fringe events (which run throughout the conferences) and in their main speeches.”

These events tend to make MPs more candid. But I was struck by how little either set out a vision for what a healthcare system should look like. Both spoke about childhood, personal lives and interactions with the NHS and how this motivated them to make the NHS “better”.  

To add to my frustration, my early optimism that ‘prevention’ is the word of the moment in healthcare policy resulted in anything tangible. During each conference, I often found myself nodding along and muttering, ‘yeah, absolutely’. As promises were made to ‘pivot from treatment to prevention’. We even heard the now well-worn line that we operate a “National Sickness Service”. Details of what this pivot would actually mean remained scarce.

More detail came from listening to the more junior ministers, which made me feel better about seeing them. Often at the first event of the day and at a location outside the main conference area. Here, Neill O’Brien MP (Minister for Public Health) shared the gem that “99% of spending in the NHS goes on treatment, not prevention.”  

He also made clear that he believes in the ‘swap to stop’ scheme. This sees vapes provided on the NHS to those wanting to stop smoking as a way to tackle smoking rates. He believes that the worries around long-term effects can be overblown.  

He couldn’t hide his excitement at what technology, including but not limited to AI, may bring to healthcare. There is a genuine passion there. But it tends to lead to more discussions about screening and fewer about ‘prevention’ as Breast Cancer UK defines it.  

The Labour conference

On the Labour side, shadow ministers like Jess Phillips MP (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding) and Preet Gill MP (Primary Care and Public Health) clarified that a future Labour government would see it as their duty to be interventionist.  

This contrasts starkly with the Conservative’s instinct. They say that the Government should try to avoid involving itself too much in the lives of individuals. The most obvious example of this was how Prime Minister Rishi Sunak approached disposable vapes – a consultation has just started. This is several steps short of the outright ban, which was apparently under consideration.

“The message from Labour was that they would not be so shy.”

Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting used his main stage speech to talk openly about “reform” and “an NHS that gets to people too late”. There was more nodding from me as it felt we were getting close to a promise that the pivot to prevention was going to be given some real muscle. Sadly, we never quite got there.  

Conclusion

That sums up the political side of the conferences for me. Prevention is a very popular word currently, but there is scant agreement on a definition, let alone how we put it at the heart of our health service. I found a similar feeling amongst representatives from organisations across the environmental and health spheres.  

I’m pleased to say that my contacts list has strengthened considerably due to being at the two conferences. This feels like it will be critical going forward. Cross-organisation work will take the positive noises we heard on prevention and turn them into something tangible.

How can I help?

There is a political appetite to change how we do healthcare. It’s for us to help ministers and future ministers fill in the details.  

To help us do that, I would be very grateful if you contact Health Minister Steve Barclay ([email protected]), asking him to set out how prevention will be put at the heart of our future healthcare.  

Please copy me in as well ([email protected]) so we can see who has contacted the Minister. 



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