22 May 2023

From Ming vase to Wedgwood teapot: Do Labour’s policies on health and technology match the ambition?

Sensitive to the charge of the ‘Ming vase’ Labour Party, accused of being full of attack lines but threadbare on policy, Labour’s Missions have sought to consign the accusation to history. 

Louie Freeman-Bassett

There’s been such an avalanche of health policy announcements, op-eds and speeches on health in the last few days, it’s hard to keep up.

But the topline message is indicative of Labour’s wider challenge, how to communicate the party’s transformative intent without committing to incremental spending that they know is likely to be torn apart and which they may lack the room to manoeuvre to deliver on if they find themselves in power.

Today’s speech from Keir Starmer made a particular effort to explain how this seemingly restrained agenda was still a forward thinking, genuine embodiment of the sometimes mercurial values of the NHS (note the two references to Nye Bevan in today’s speech and none on the Missions Statement and nine references to the ‘future’).

Among the most future-focused of the three health ‘Shifts’ needed to achieve their goals – was technology; including harnessing the power of the NHS app, digital patient records, using AI to improve early diagnosis.

All commendable ideas which few would argue with, but equally, ideas which wouldn’t have been out of place in a pre-pandemic 2019 manifesto, so perhaps lack some of the visionary flair needed to build “a tomorrow service”.

Likewise, on genomics, in a piece in the Guardian today Starmer said: “genomic screening can spot predisposition to big killers…diagnose rare diseases and help personalise treatments….[to] prevent more illness and take more care of our lifestyle choices.”

This is true and it is exciting – but is probably more of a statement of fact than a clear vision.

On improving clinical trials, more will be needed than “a bit of application…and a degree of belief in the possibility of a better future” to help regulators keep up with the potentially paradigm shifting leaps in technology that have been happening around them.

And in a week where leaders from across the world come together to discuss the global health priorities at the World Health Assembly, there was a notable absence of a word that’s dominated the health landscape in recent years: ‘Covid’.

Undoubtedly a deliberate decision to focus on the domestic agenda and perhaps more the purview of international development, global health policy issues like health equity and health security are still key and ones that many NGOs, life science bodies and international health organisations will be keen to hear more on.

One possible kicker to the ‘future-focused’, visionary narrative of health policy is that change will take time. Both Wes Streeting and Starmer have been clear that the focus is on long-term reform, and repeatedly categorised any short-term fixes as ‘sticking plaster politics’. Whilst there’s no doubt the reforms needed to health systems need long-term thinking, many, stumbling into a post-pandemic world, will also want to know what the first hundred days look like.

These recent announcements then come as welcome additional detail for the public and those in the health sector, but given the breadth of ideas on display, fails to really communicate a clear strategy or direction.

This is perhaps be expected given how far out we still are from a general election – making this less of a polished version of Labour’s health vision and more an evolution on the way to achieving it – less of a Ming vase and more of a Wedgwood teapot.

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