I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of universal health coverage in tackling preventable and treatable diseases.
I would first like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. I have been lobbied fairly heavily on the subject and a number of organisations asked me to approach the Committee and request a debate. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. He and I have discussed the matter before. It is probably one of those issues that involves not only the Department of Health but perhaps the Department for International Development. He once told me that he took part in a debate that covered five different Departments—I suppose he is a man of many talents—so he will be able to answer wisely for the Departments covered in this debate. I thank hon. Members for coming along to Westminster Hall on such a warm day, and given the almost end-of-season approach we seem to have to matters now.
I wish to begin, as we approach the 70th anniversary of our NHS, by thanking all those who have made that institution all that it is. I have said that in other places, but I wanted to say it publicly now in Westminster Hall. Many political parties have had the opportunity to be part of the creation of our great NHS, and many of us have had the opportunity to be cared for by it, both surgically—in operations—and through the care that nurses provide in hospitals, which I personally have had on three occasions over the past year. I am thankful to every person involved in the NHS, from the porter to the paediatric consultant, from the occupational therapist to the oncologist, from the scrub nurse to the surgeon, from the auxiliary nurse to the audiology clinician, and all people in between. I thank them all very much for all that they do for us as patients, but also for us as a nation. I want to put that on the record.
I thank NHS staff for making the NHS work in situations that often seem unworkable, due to stress and pressure. As the Democratic Unionist party’s spokesperson on health, I am frequently contacted by those who need more than the service has to offer. A great many times we focus on the problems of the NHS and where we are—that is the way life is—but we also need to reflect on how good it is and how much we owe it.
People often come to us with their problems; they do not necessarily come to us to tell us how good a job we are doing. Perhaps half a dozen people will call in a week to say what a good a job we are doing, but hundreds of others will come to us with their complaints. That is the nature of the job. It is not about complaining; it is part of the job. I believe that I must highlight where we are going wrong, or perhaps where we can do things better. We must see if we can do things along those lines.
Today it is my desire to thank all those who work in the NHS so tirelessly, who do not always get the recognition they deserve. The NHS is our nation’s greatest asset. A Member said in the main Chamber today during business questions that the NHS was probably our nation’s greatest accomplishment. I tend to agree, as I am sure would many others. The NHS embodies our British values of compassion and fairness. It represents our nation’s strong sense of justice and the desire to help those in need. With its quality of care and pioneering scientific research, it is a world-leading institution.
Across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the NHS works in partnership with many universities and private companies on research and development for drugs that can help save lives. Queen’s University Belfast is one of those universities, and I know that because it is one of the institutions that I would call in on. Indeed, just three months ago I visited its cancer research team to see the scientific work they are doing. They were over here this week, along with staff from breast cancer charities, in the Attlee suite in Portcullis House, and we had a chance to catch up. What they are doing to try to find cures for cancer at all levels is incredible. There is also the complexity of breast cancer treatment to consider, because many people have different variations, so the drugs they take must be just as varied.
The NHS is the type of British export that can help underpin the UK’s global Britain vision, which I believe we lead the world on and which we can be the forerunners for. Health for all, which is the bedrock of this most beloved institution, is a principle that the UK originated in 1948, when it first embarked on the altruistic duty of creating a national health system to provide care to everyone, everywhere, without their having to experience financial hardship.
I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said so far about the NHS. I saw its merits at first hand when I had a baby two years ago. However, I wish to make a point about the current shortage in the NHS of the BCG vaccine, which is used to treat tuberculosis. My constituent, Hussein, is 11 months old. He was born in Lebanon but is a British citizen. His parents have told me that their GP said that Hussein cannot have the BCG vaccine on the NHS because he was born outside the UK. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although our NHS has a fantastic track record in tackling diseases and providing care, in order for it to have a successful future every British citizen must be entitled to the preventive medicines on offer?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I know that the Minister, like me, listened carefully to what she said. If there is clearly the anomaly that she outlines, the NHS should reply and make the vaccine available. I am quite incredulous that someone who is a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland cannot have it. That is almost impossible to understand. I am sure that the hon. Lady will receive a response from the Minister in whatever time is left at the end of the debate.
The NHS is the purest and simplest definition of universal health coverage, and it is the world’s oldest and most successful model. The World Health Organisation estimates that half the world’s population lack access to essential healthcare services and that 100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty by healthcare expenses. We have problems as well. I get frustrated sometimes when constituents come to me. I am referring to Northern Ireland, where health is a devolved matter and therefore not the Minister’s responsibility, but I believe that these cases illustrate some of the issues. A constituent told me this week that a consultant had said to them, “Well, you’re going to have to wait maybe 53 weeks for an operation.” If people want to have an operation through private healthcare, however, they are told that it could maybe be done before the end of the month. As always, if someone can pay for something, they can have it done. We have these problems within the NHS in Northern Ireland and, I suspect, across the rest of the United Kingdom.
As I said, the World Health Organisation estimates that half the world’s population lack access to essential healthcare services and that some 100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty by healthcare expenses. Behind these horrifying statistics are tragic human stories of unnecessary loss and suffering. My parliamentary aide, who does a lot of speech writing and research for me, has travelled to Africa to work every summer, usually in Swaziland but also in Zimbabwe over the past couple of years. That is through Elim Missions, which is a church group in my constituency. She used to visit Africa every summer, during the recess, but she now has two young girls and has not been for a few years. When she came home each year, the tales she would tell about the hospitals she visited would break your heart.
Let me tie together these two stories: first, our NHS; and secondly—perhaps this is for DFID—the responsibility that I believe we have to reach out and help other countries. I referred to that in my earlier discussion with the Minister. My aide’s stories would really have broken your heart. The children’s ward was full of the cast-offs from hospitals in the UK. I do not mean that disrespectfully, because we do that in Northern Ireland—Elim Missions and many other groups do it. We fill containers with second-hand hospital apparatus that might need repairs and we send it out to Zimbabwe, Swaziland and other countries around the world. The equipment can still be used, but sometimes it is worse for wear. We would not put our children anywhere near some of those conditions, but the staff we met made use of all that apparatus and all those materials.
Children in orphanages went without basic medical care until nurses from the UK gave up years of their lives to provide medical training to local communities, for example on the importance of sterilisation. Sometimes the issues can be small, but necessary, such as the simple effect of drops. The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and I were talking this morning about some other things. He said that when he was in Africa his son was taken very ill with pneumonia at eight months old. They did not have the small antibiotic drops that were needed, but once his son got them he became much better and got over the illness. That shows how small things can make a difference and how important it is that we do them.
The Luke Commission is a charity that has been operating since 2005. It takes free healthcare and hope to the most isolated populations in Swaziland. Mobile hospital outreach sites are set up in the remotest parts of that small country. The population is scattered and dispersed. Patients are tested, counselled and linked to treatment for HIV/AIDS. Swaziland has some of the highest levels of HIV in the whole world, and the whole of Africa in particular. Those suspected of having TB are X-rayed and started on medication. Voluntary male circumcisions are performed in an on-site 11-bed operating room, as studies have shown that the rate of HIV transmission is cut by 60% in circumcised males. Those are practical actions that can be taken to change things. More and more evidence indicates that lack of male circumcision is one of the primary reasons why the HIV prevalence rate is so high. These actions can reduce that. Nurses travel back to rural communities to check on newly circumcised men to ensure that they are healing, to answer questions and to provide HIV prevention education.
At the mobile hospital sites, schoolchildren are treated for skin and intestinal problems. Young people are fitted with new shoes. Those are practical, small things that can make a difference. I put on record my thanks to the Elim church charity and to the many other charities and churches across my constituency that gather products, whether clothes, shoes, medication or hospital apparatus—whatever it may be—to help fit out some of these places in Swaziland, Zimbabwe and further afield.
Handicapped people are analysed by Luke Commission medical personnel and given bush wheelchairs—they need a wheelchair that is practical. Follow-up treatment for patients with HIV, chronic disease, complex medical disease and various cancers is offered. Those with poor eyesight receive vision services and glasses, if needed. There is an ophthalmic surgical programme primarily focused on the removal of cataracts, which are a serious issue in parts of Africa. Those practical changes can be made easily. They do not need a lot of money or investment, but they can change lives. Can you imagine, Mr McCabe, not having your eyesight? Of all the things in the world that you would never want to lose, it would be your eyesight. I say that as someone who has worn glasses since I was eight. I understand the importance.
Packets of medication are distributed by the thousands every day, each prescribed by a doctor with instructions on usage in the mother tongue so that they are understood. Psychosocial and grief counselling is available, too. The pain and the tears they have are no less than the pain and tears we have. Some of the things that happen to them happen because they do not have medical treatment available. The Luke Commission team of nearly 100 people treated more than 61,000 patients in 2015. We can do a lot more with small things, but how many more could we affect?
Most recently, a young lady from my constituency gave up her time during her summer to help the Luke Commission. So many others from the UK give up their time to make a difference. Would the Minister be so kind as to outline the initiatives that are in place? I understand his remit may not stretch to that, but it would be helpful if he could give us some idea. What initiatives are in place to encourage our knowledge and skills to be shared worldwide, like the schemes of Doctors Without Borders and the Luke Commission? How are the Government sharing and disseminating the expertise and learning generated from the NHS with Health Minsters in developing countries?
We have great partnerships and the wonderful NHS. We are celebrating the NHS’s 70 years of tremendous work, but we should be trying to show other countries what we can do. Will the Minister give us some idea of how we can help developing countries? I believe that is our duty, and I would like to better understand how we can fulfil it. We need to take up the mantle and do more in our constituencies. We are doing practical, physical and financial things through churches and other charities that directly help in Africa and other countries across the world.
Countries in the developing world are already showcasing their ingenuity and political will in delivering universal healthcare. For example, Bangladesh has achieved wonders in national health in the last 25 years. More than 95% of Bangladeshi children are now fully immunised—that is tremendous. There have been other massive improvements: breastfeeding is near universal, and the level of stunting in children under five declined from 51% in 2004 to 36% in 2014—a significant decrease, showing what we can do if we influence and help both physically and practically. Community outreach by a skilled cadre of female community workers was instrumental in achieving almost universal immunisation coverage, the world’s highest coverage of oral rehydration solution, greater uptake of family planning, and innovative solutions for community-based management of sick newborn babies and severe and acute malnutrition.
Bangladesh is a world leader in reducing child mortality, but pneumonia remains a major challenge for policy makers. Sadly, childhood pneumonia is prevalent across many countries. The stats are alarming: every minute of every day, including today, two young lives are lost to pneumonia; in 2016, it claimed nearly a million children under the age of five in developing countries—more than HIV, TB and malaria combined. If we had the antibiotics available, we could tackle a lot of those problems. Pneumonia is a killer that leaves children gasping for breath and fighting for their lives, but it is also a disease that we have the power to prevent, diagnose and treat. We can do that, so how can we do it better to save those million children’s lives?
We know that an accessible and free health system is the most effective way of treating pneumonia. A fully integrated universal healthcare model can care for a child from the moment they are born until they reach adulthood. That will prevent deaths from pneumonia, which is the biggest killer. We are here today to find out what more can be done to provide UHC in countries around the world, including those in Africa and the middle east, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries where these problems occur. Millions of people around the world are denied their most basic rights of access to healthcare. We have UHC in this country, and I would like to think that one day we will be able to make it available across the world. As beneficiaries of the NHS, everyone in this room must believe we want everyone to have what we have: a system that is fair and free. We must therefore take steps to change things.
Pneumonia is a prevalent issue within the Commonwealth, too. Save the Children has calculated that children under the age of five living in Commonwealth countries are two and a half times more likely to die from pneumonia than children living in non-Commonwealth countries. When we hear those stats, we realise how big the difference is that we have to try to reduce. Will the UK Government raise the subject at the next Commonwealth Health Ministers meeting? If the Minister is in a position to use that power, I ask him to do so. He should certainly contact the relevant Department to ensure that it happens. What leadership role can the UK Government play, given that the UK is the chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years? I would like to think we can use that influential role. I know we will, but perhaps we should be reminded that we have that opportunity. We should try hard to make things happen.
I am incredibly pleased to have one of the world’s foremost research and medical centres in the wonderful Queen’s University. The steps taken in improving healthcare worldwide have been tremendous, including the most recent breakthrough regarding the targeting of antibiotics for pneumonia using groundbreaking cancer treatment technology. I mentioned Queen’s at the beginning of my speech, but I mention it again, because it is at the coalface of breakthrough technology. I asked Queen’s for a little more in-depth information regarding the breakthrough. That information is certainly something to be proud of. The Queen’s research team indicated that our struggle against infectious diseases is far from over, but they, with other universities, research and development bodies and private companies, are doing their best to make things happen. Globalisation has increased the risk of pandemics, which we get regularly, reminding us that whenever we accomplish something, another disease and pandemic comes along, and sometimes existing drugs are useless.
Unsurprisingly, antimicrobial resistance—AMR—is included in the recently released UK Government national risk register of civil emergencies that may directly affect the UK over the next five years. Our Government have been instrumental in assisting and responding, and it is always good that they do that. More than 80,000 deaths in the UK are estimated if there is a widespread outbreak of a resistant microbe. Far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, a post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries can kill is a very real possibility for the 21st century. We can never rest on our laurels with what we have done. We need to step forward and be more aware of what we need to do in the time ahead. New diseases are always developing, and there is always a need to match them. We should pay respect and give credit to organisations that do that well.
The O’Neill review on AMR sets out the global threat by highlighting that drug-resistant infections already kill hundreds of thousands of people a year globally. By 2050, it could be as many as 10 million—one person every three seconds. If we needed a reminder of the importance of the issue, that would be the figure. I am not sure if anybody in the Chamber will be around in 2050—I certainly will not be—but those who are could well face one of the debilitating diseases that we need to research now.
Of particular concern is the mounting prevalence of infections caused by multi-drug-resistant gram-negative bacteria, in particular Klebsiella pneumoniae. That pathogen has been singled out as an urgent threat to human health by the UK Government, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organisation due to extremely drug-resistant strains. Notably, Klebsiella infections have increased by 12% in the UK alone over the last five years. That tells us how things are developing, and that we need to be prepared.
Professor Chris Scott, the interim director of the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology, is an expert in nanotechnology. In June, he teamed up with Professor Jose Bengoechea, director of the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, who is a world expert on infections by multi-drug-resistant pathogens, chiefly Klebsiella pneumoniae. Professor Bengoechea’s team discovered that it is possible to use the nanotechnology approaches that Professor Scott is developing for cancer to try to treat the bacteria that reside inside human cells and combat that pathogen. We have to listen to the experts and ask them to take things forward in the right way.
Although there is clearly a need for new antibiotic drugs, which must be the Government’s main focus in tackling the potential tsunami of antimicrobial resistance that we face, Queen’s research shows that with effective delivery of antibiotics we will gain a better therapeutic effect against a main protagonist of pneumonia. The complex scientific work that Queen’s is doing should make a difference. Patients may need to take an inhaler of particles containing antibiotics, as opposed to a simple tablet, in the specific case of pneumonia. It is possible that an advanced formulation of drugs could slow resistance developing in some instances and generate better outcomes for patients. It may also mean that we could extend the useful lifespan of some of our current antibiotics. To take that to patients, we need to prepare clinical grade material, but advanced formulations such as nanomedicine are difficult to manufacture. Life is never straightforward, but when we are given a challenge we have to take it on.
Investment is needed in the UK to provide facilities that can advance these excellent therapeutic strategies before they can be tested on humans. We have a process to go through and we must walk along those lines. When we come to the end of the road, we want to ensure that the medication is appropriate and safe. Additional funding needs to be allocated to new approaches to treat infections. Again, the Minister may wish to tell us how the Government are working through the Department of Health and Social Care with universities, companies and research and development on how that process can work, and perhaps how it can work better.
By thinking outside the box, as exemplified by the Queen’s University Belfast research, we will find much-needed new therapeutics. Several projects at Queen’s University Belfast are reaching the pre-clinical stage and are being stalled by the lack of investment, since pharma are still not interested in supporting this essential work. There are ways of going forward, but we need a wee bit of security as well. The lady from Queen’s University who was here this week talking about breast cancer research was funded through one of the Government Departments in Northern Ireland. Queen’s University also gave her a position, which brought her a bit of income. That meant that she could do her research here in the UK, and we in the UK can get the advantage and try to advance that as well. Other UK Government schemes, such as those supported by Innovate UK, also fall short in supporting pre-clinical work because there is still no commitment from pharma. I ask the Minister to consider standing in the breach, if that is possible, and supplying the necessary support and funding for Queen’s and other research centres to help us to do better.
It is expected that by 2035 more than 500,000 people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer each year. To ensure that our health service can meet future demand, action to prevent cancer and other diseases must be at the forefront of any approach. We have heard today some of the figures, certainly on the mainland in relation to cancer and some of the delays. There are many problems in the NHS, but we are here to help the Minister and to encourage him and the Department of Health to move forward.
The Government must train and employ more staff to diagnose and treat cancers earlier. We can be proud of what the UK Government—our Government—do on healthcare, but we strive to do more, and the Minister strives to do more. The Department of Health is already looking across the world to see how it can share expertise. The Department for International Development is helping countries to strengthen their healthcare systems. What else could we achieve if we joined up the dots and worked together more on implementing universal healthcare?
We should encourage countries to raise their own domestic resources for healthcare, which could have a transformative impact. DFID has been fantastic at supporting the health system to strengthen, but that is not always free, which leaves behind the poorest and most marginalised. I referred earlier to those who are unable to get their operation through the NHS, but are offered the opportunity to pay for it. I am very unhappy with that system; it suits some people, but not everyone. We have to be ever mindful that some of the poorest and most marginalised people in countries across the world are at the bottom rung of the healthcare ladder. We should share our expertise on domestic funding for the NHS with Governments around the world, encouraging Governments to spend more on healthcare.
From 2011 to 2015 there was a cross-Government strategy on global healthcare. An update strategy could include recommendations on domestic resource mobilisation. I understand that the Department of Health has a global health team. It would be helpful to know the remit of that team and how they co-ordinate with DFID on global health issues. What is the connection? Do they have any input to the policy, strategy and the way forward? Do they have regular meetings?
In February 2014, the world watched in horror as Ebola swept across many parts of Africa. We in this country did our bit immediately to respond. We sent our service personnel, our experts and our medication. We were not found wanting, and we never will be. The horror turned to pride as we saw that role that UK aid and our healthcare professionals played in stopping Ebola and saving lives. We should be immensely proud of what our people did, and what our Government did and continue to do. That was the UK Government at their best. They co-ordinated the response to a major global health crisis and supported a country’s health system. How well that was done! We owe thanks to those personnel and to our Government for leading the way. We would never wish for Ebola or something similar to return. What can be done to implement that sort of cross-Government approach to supporting health systems?
I thank hon. Members for coming along to support me, and the Minister for coming along to respond. I thank hon. Members for their time. How does the Minister believe we can excel, improve and achieve an even higher level of global care?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate. It is a thoughtful and appropriate way to mark NHS70. I pay tribute to him for his typically expert and heartfelt speech.
Whatever the difference between our parties and the Governments of the UK on the details of health policy, we all agree about the extraordinary benefits that the national health service brings as a universal healthcare service, and about its immense contribution in tackling preventable and communicable diseases in this country, not just through treatment but through immunisation and other public health measures. I pay tribute to all NHS staff for their immense dedication and service. Like other hon. Members, I have benefited from the NHS’s care on many occasions, and I will forever be grateful for that.
As the hon. Gentleman said, that is not to say that the job is done. There are things to improve, but we are fortunate to have been born in a country with such a system, given that so many others are not. In the absence of universal health coverage in some countries, many are excluded from the healthcare they need, sometimes including the most basic care. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, as recently as December 2017, it was reported that at least half the world’s population cannot access essential health services, and almost 100 million people are forced to live in extreme poverty simply because of the expenses associated with healthcare.
It is not just a question of finance and infrastructure; it is also about the barriers caused by culture, prejudice and even draconian and inhumane laws. The hon. Gentleman set out some of the tragic consequences for the affected individuals. For example, the terrible incidence of pneumonia among children in certain countries is a tragedy for individuals, for family after family and for community after community. It is also a disaster for those countries’ economies and public finances. In short, it is a circle of despair.
That is exactly why the goal of universal health coverage is enshrined in sustainable development goal 3—“health for all”—and is a global priority for the World Health Organisation and other international organisations. In simple terms, that means we need to work towards ensuring access to skilled medical professionals in good-quality facilities. We still have a long way to go even in that regard, particularly in the poorest countries and the remotest areas, where even the most basic of issues, such as access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene, remain challenging. Without those things in place, facilities cannot function effectively.
That is not an end to the matter. The goal of universal health coverage will not be realised unless good-quality care is provided without discrimination. There is no point in having facilities and doctors if absence rates among healthcare staff are 60%, as sometimes happens in certain countries. The goal is fatally undermined if discrimination against the most marginalised people, some of whom are the most in need of healthcare, means that they cannot access its full benefits or that they receive substandard treatment. In short, the goal is not simply universal health coverage but effective universal health coverage.
Disease-specific programmes continue to have a vital role to play, but ultimately diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and many others can be eradicated only by establishing universal health coverage, which we sometimes take for granted in our country. That also means ensuring that HIV services are part of a universal health coverage system. People with HIV can often be among the most marginalised in a country—for example, sex workers and men who have sex with men. That can mean that their ability to pay for treatment is even more limited, and they face additional hurdles, such as culture, prejudice and inhumane criminal laws.
I am not slow to criticise the UK Government when they get it wrong, so it is only fair that I praise them when they get it right. I will do that in a moment. The goal of extending universal health coverage around the world will not be assisted by poorly planned and abrupt withdrawals by the Department for International Development from countries without a proper transition. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact gave an amber-red warning to DFID’s transition programmes. The Government have responded to that warning, but it is vital that, as that work is taken forward, DFID ensures that its transition programmes promote UHC and prioritise access to services for the most marginalised communities before it makes its exit.
I recognise that the UK has been a key global leader on this issue in years gone by, and long may that continue. This Government, and any Government, will have our support if they continue to pursue the goals in the universal health coverage 2030 partnership. We need to use the NHS’s expertise and experience to help shape new universal systems in other countries. We should continue to use DFID to put other Governments in a position to support such systems and end reliance on charges and out-of-pocket spending. We want the Foreign Office to be used fully to argue for an increase in health spending and an end to draconian criminal laws that marginalise communities and make access to healthcare difficult. We should continue to support efforts to better measure progress on who has access to universal healthcare and the quality of care they are receiving, so that we can check, for example, that HIV treatment is reaching marginalised communities.
We should continue to support non-governmental organisations and civil society in helping people to access healthcare and hold their national Governments to account. We should continue to be a leader in research and development. The hon. Member for Strangford rightly highlighted the work at Queen’s University, but universities across the United Kingdom play a pivotal role in researching diseases that affect low and middle-income countries.
We need to work with other countries and the World Health Organisation to create a global road map on access to medicines, and to end what is sometimes a medicines rip-off. That means encouraging the de-linking of research and development costs from medicine prices, and defending the use of so-called TRIPs flexibilities—those under the agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights—by low-income countries seeking to access medicines. It would be particularly helpful to hear a bit from the Government about their commitment to pushing for protecting such flexibilities in the outcome document from the forthcoming high-level meeting on tuberculosis, which I understand is to take place in September.
If all that helps to achieve the universal health coverage goal for 2030, then the NHS’s 82nd birthday will be an even more significant and happier occasion than its 70th.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, on this historic day—the 70th anniversary of the founding of the NHS. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this important debate and for his passionate speech. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for their contributions. Finally, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this debate, especially on the NHS’s 70th birthday.
It is an honour to be here to speak about our NHS and the example it has set for the rest of the world. When introducing the National Health Service Bill to the House of Commons, Bevan said:
“I believe it will lift the shadow from millions of homes. It will keep very many people alive who might otherwise be dead. It will relieve suffering…It will be a great contribution towards the wellbeing of the common people of Great Britain.”—[Official Report, 30 April 1946; Vol. 422, c. 63.]
Seventy years on, those words still ring true in the UK. That is why the Labour party will always defend our NHS from Government funding cuts and from ever-increasing marketisation, which opens the door to unwanted privatisation. We remain committed to defending our NHS so that it continues to be the fairest and best healthcare system in the entire world. While we celebrate today, however, it is easy to forget that across the world, as we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford, some of the poorest and most vulnerable people are being denied the basic right to health services that we enjoy and indeed take for granted.
In December 2017 the World Health Organisation reported that at least half of the world’s population did not have access to essential health services. It also found that 800 million people spent at least 10% of their household budget on health expenses for themselves, a sick child or other family member, and that for almost 100 million people, the expenses associated with healthcare meant that they were forced to live in poverty.
That widespread lack of access to healthcare contributes to the global epidemic of vaccine-preventable diseases, widespread malnutrition and other health-related problems. Following on from the hon. Gentleman, I shall add some examples to the debate. Globally, 2.6 million children died in the first month of life in 2016, largely due to lack of quality care at birth or skilled care and treatment after birth. More than 20% of births throughout the world still take place without the presence of a skilled birth attendant, and in sub-Saharan Africa that figure rises to more than 40%.
Pneumonia is now the biggest infectious killer of children, claiming nearly 1 million lives each year, or two children every minute. Pneumonia is preventable and treatable; that so many children are dying because of it is shameful. Globally, only 4% of HIV-positive people who inject drugs have access to HIV treatment, and that also increases the risk of HIV transmission among those who use drugs. Behind such awful statistics are tragic human stories of unnecessary loss and suffering. When we invest in health, we invest in people, no matter where they are in the world.
Universal health coverage means that everyone can receive the healthcare services that they need without the worry of suffering financial hardship. It can therefore protect countries from epidemics, reduce poverty and the risk of hunger, create jobs—as we know, the NHS is the biggest employer in the country—drive economic growth and enhance gender equality. Given the world-class reputation of our NHS, the UK Government have a huge part to play in encouraging other countries to establish universal health coverage, and we should be proud that we have such a prestigious role in leading the way on health.
I am pleased that the Government are committed to delivering the UN’s sustainable development goals, which include universal health coverage. Indeed, we should all be committed to ensuring that people live healthy lives, no matter where they live. Will the Minister tell us whether his Department has worked with other Governments from around the world to promote universal healthcare coverage? Which countries has he worked with on that?
Public Health England has developed a global health strategy to look into building public health capacity, particularly in low and middle-income countries, as well as sharing excellence by working in partnership and building on the UK’s strengths. Does the Department of Health have any plans to develop a global health strategy with a specific focus on universal healthcare coverage? Does the Department have regular conversations with Public Health England and colleagues in the Department for International Development to discuss universal healthcare coverage and how to promote it around the world?
Seventy years ago everyone in the UK was granted access to free healthcare, regardless of how much they earned or where they lived. Sadly, millions around the world are still missing out on access to such a basic human right, and people are dying because of it. It should be the ambition of us all on this special day to ensure that that right is enjoyed by everyone around the world. I support the Government on any aims that they might have to do that.
I am sorry for my musical chairs during the debate, Mr McCabe, but I could not hear everyone from the end of the Chamber—I think it is my age and the heat. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for, as always, an interesting speech. I congratulate him, especially today—birthday day—on securing the debate in his residence of Westminster Hall. He mentioned that he might still be here in 2050—I would almost hazard a wager with the hon. Gentleman about that one, but I hope we shall all still be here.
Was not 5 July 1948 a pivotal day for our country, with the inauguration of healthcare free at the point of use for all our citizens? Seven decades later, the NHS remains one of our nation’s most loved institutions. The NHS is often described as the closest thing we have to a national religion, and this lunchtime a service in Westminster Abbey proved the point. The NHS is one of our country’s crowning achievements, possibly the crowning achievement—along with the English football team, of course—and it is the envy of people across the globe. When I travel around the world in this job, people are fascinated by and envious of the NHS in equal measure.
As has been said by my shadow, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), and everyone else who has spoken today, the NHS is of course nothing without its fantastic staff, who show such a level of Christian compassion—some without even knowing it—day in, day out. More than 1.5 million people work each day to provide the best possible care for our constituents.
The questions that the hon. Member for Strangford asked are important. We are the proud owners of an excellent universal healthcare system, albeit one we continually strive to strengthen, as we must—the best friends are prepared to criticise, and the NHS is not above criticism in our struggle to make it better—but he asked what we are doing to share our experiences. I shall certainly be able to cover that point.
The health of UK citizens is not dependent only on action in the UK. Diseases do not respect borders, and we need to act internationally to protect ourselves as well as to help others. Not only is that relevant when an outbreak hits—recently we had an Ebola outbreak, which I have monitored closely—but we must keep working with other nations to strengthen their capacity to prevent, detect and respond to diseases. UHC is critical to that. Threats such as that of antimicrobial resistance, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his opening remarks, can be tackled only through global action.
There is much that we can learn from each other. The NHS has evolved a huge amount since the late 1940s, and the next 70 years will require ongoing adaptation and innovation as we deal with the challenges of 1 million more over-70s—the ageing population—and further reap the rewards of scientific advancements, which have been so central to the NHS in its first 70 years. Other countries develop innovative approaches that we may not yet have considered—it is not all about the great empire of Britain, telling the rest of the world how things shall be—and there are plenty of challenges that no one has yet cracked. We should work together, and we do. It is right that we support others who have not yet achieved universal health coverage to do so, including by sharing our experiences.
We are committed to delivering the sustainable development goals, which the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) mentioned, including SDG 3. That is crucial to tackling many other health challenges, including the improvement of maternal, newborn and child health, as he said, and specific diseases such as TB, HIV, malaria and—everyone rightly mentioned this—pneumonia, the single largest infectious cause of death in children worldwide.
Universal health coverage is a goal, not a blueprint. Country needs, plans and perspectives are central to our work, and we have no interest in imposing an NHS model. It is crucial for each country to find its own path to UHC, which may entail greater private sector involvement, if that is what the country wishes, or a national health insurance scheme if that is what the politicians are brave enough to do. That is not our choice, but it is the choice in some parts of the world. We cannot just go with our judgment in trying to help other countries achieve universal health coverage.
Poorer, marginalised populations must achieve better access to good-quality essential services without the risk of financial hardship, as we choose in our NHS. Support for UHC must also involve helping countries to achieve sustainable funding mechanisms for their system, whichever they choose. The countries in greatest need deserve our financial support, but the ultimate goal must remain to transition to domestic funding, so that countries can maintain health systems in the long term.
The UK engages on UHC in a number of international forums. We strongly support the World Health Organisation’s focus on UHC through its new general programme of work, and we provide funding through a number of DFID programmes. We engage on this topic at governing body meetings and our annual UK-WHO strategic dialogue. I have a good, open and direct relationship with the head of the WHO, as part of my responsibility for international health at the Department of Health and Social Care. Underpinning the WHO’s success is a strong and effective organisation, and the UK continues to promote reform of the WHO so that it is the best it can be. As the second largest donor to the WHO, we are in a very strong position in that regard.
We promote UHC as a priority in other forums such as the G20 and the G7; I attended the G7 Health Ministers meeting last year in Milan. We were pleased to see strong commitments on health in the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, including on eye care, which I am passionate about. We will continue to follow up with the Commonwealth secretariat on the implementation of everything that was agreed in London. The high-level meeting on UHC at the UN General Assembly in 2019 will be an important opportunity to share experiences and to drive greater collective action. I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s request, which I agree with, for us to use our chairmanship of the Commonwealth to further the UHC agenda that we all believe is so important.
My Department has rightly taken on a global leadership role on patient safety, along with our German and Japanese counterparts, to whom I spoke directly at the G7 Health Ministers meeting last year. Hon. Members will know that patient safety is the central mission of the Secretary of State. It is crucial to universal healthcare—as the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East rightly says, the aim cannot just be universal healthcare but must be good-quality and safe universal healthcare. Providing access but not quality care is not truly delivering on the sustainable development goals. We hosted the first global ministerial summit on patient safety in 2016, bringing together political leaders and experts to galvanise action on this crucial issue. Subsequent summits in Germany and Japan have continued that legacy.
Another key but often overlooked facet of universal health coverage is addressing mental as well as physical health. Again, my Department is taking an international role: we will host the first global ministerial mental health summit in October. The summit will bring together political leaders, experts by experience, policy makers and civil society to share innovative and effective approaches to mental health care, which the Prime Minister has rightly said is one of her main priorities. The Department of Health and Social Care frequently receives ministerial and official delegations from overseas to look at topics as diverse as childhood obesity, on which we lead the world; emergency response, as we often send people around the world; and elderly care.
The international team, which the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned and which I look after, manages the Department’s bilateral and multilateral engagement, working closely with colleagues at DFID and across Government. The team also leads on co-ordinating global health strategy across Government and on the health implications of trade and of the UK leaving the European Union.
The hon. Gentleman asked about our support for low and middle-income countries. The UK has a number of programmes with those countries. They are largely led by DFID, although a number draw on my Department, the NHS and Public Health England, for which I have ministerial responsibility. The UK supports the aim of countries working towards universal health coverage, with priority given to ensuring that poorer, harder to reach populations achieve better access to good-quality essential services without risk of financial hardship.
We apply a health systems strengthening approach to all health investments. That includes addressing global health security issues such as antimicrobial resistance; scaling up nutrition interventions, which are about building up country resilience; improving reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health; and targeting specific diseases such as HIV, TB and neglected tropical diseases. One of the first things I was able to do in that space was to speak at the family planning summit organised by DFID over the road at County Hall, which was backed by Bill and Melinda Gates, about our record in driving down the teenage pregnancy rate in this country. Of course, getting reproductive health right often helps developing countries to make their health systems more robust and sustainable.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the delicate subject of male circumcisions and HIV. He is right to say that circumcision is practised across many parts of Africa to prevent HIV. The WHO and the UN consider male circumcision to be effective in HIV prevention, where there are heterosexual epidemics and high HIV and low male circumcision prevalence. However, the practice provides only partial protection. The procedure should not be seen as a green light to risky behaviour; it should be one element of a comprehensive HIV protection package. It would be remiss of me not to mention that I get a lot of letters on this subject. A number of campaign groups in this country and around the world make arguments about the human rights elements of the matter, especially when children undergo circumcision surgery, and its impact later in life. It is important to recognise all those facts, but the hon. Gentleman is right to mention it as part of the toolkit used in certain countries, Tanzania being one of the most prevalent.
We provide support directly to countries, work through the WHO and scale up targeted, cost-effective preventive and treatment interventions through global initiatives such as the global health fund, Gavi and the global financing facility. We are the largest donor to Gavi, which provides developing countries with pneumococcal vaccine to protect against the main cause of pneumonia. Between 2010 and 2016, 109 million children received the vaccine; we estimate that saved about 760,000 lives.
The health partnership scheme is another good example of how the UK can use our expertise overseas. Since 2011, we have trained 84,000 health workers across 31 countries. The scheme relies on volunteers from the NHS who help to support the training of staff overseas and benefit themselves through gaining new skills and motivation. Last October, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who I work closely with across Government, announced the new £30 million programme with the catchy title “Stronger Health Partnerships for Stronger Health Systems”. It will run for five years from 2019 and will support partnerships between leading UK institutions and those in developing countries.
One of the benefits of being the Minister in these debates is that sometimes I can mention the good things that happen in my constituency. Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which covers the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester and the Basingstoke and North Hampshire Hospital, has two very good international links, including with Yei in South Sudan, where a number of medical professionals from that trust have worked on antibiotic resistance studies, looking at the bacteria that can cause pneumonia. In collaboration with the Rotary Club in Winchester and the Brickworks, which is a Winchester-based charity, it has secured funding for textbooks to repopulate a midwifery and lab training institution and funding to build schools for South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, so that refugee children can continue their primary and secondary education. There will be examples in the constituencies of Members throughout the House of health professionals using such expertise as part of their upskilling, but also to help those less fortunate than us.
The UK offers development opportunities for the medical workforce globally. The medical training initiative allows overseas medical specialists to train in the UK for up to two years, to see our system close up, so that they can return to their home country and apply their skills and knowledge to the benefit of their population. Of course, that benefits the NHS by providing extra staff, who we desperately need, and enhances the clinical capacities of health systems in low and middle-income countries. We estimate that just over 3,300 overseas doctors have taken part since 2009. I know the House will be interested in that positive programme.
We are passionate about tackling AMR, and we are committed to doing so. My Department is working across Government with a wide range of stakeholders to refresh our AMR strategy, which rightly gets a lot of attention in the House, with a view to republishing it at the end of 2018. I know that the hon. Member for Strangford will be interested in that. One of the ambitions we set out in response to Lord O’Neill’s independent review of AMR, which was established by George Osborne when he was at the Treasury, was to halve healthcare-associated gram-negative bloodstream infections. We are focusing on E. coli infections this year, but we are also collecting data on Klebsiella and Pseudomona pathogens.
I think there will be a lot of interest among Members in the refreshed AMR strategy. Health Question Time seldom goes by without AMR being mentioned. AMR is important. As the chief medical officer, who is busy in other ways today, has said, it is one of the greatest threats, if not the greatest threat, that our world—not just our healthcare world—faces.
We welcome all new research that contributes to our work to tackle AMR—especially great research such as that produced by Queen’s University Belfast, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. There are a number of funding opportunities, and high-quality proposals are always welcomed. He rightly mentioned that people from Queen’s were at the House yesterday. He and I met them together—we had our photo taken with them—at an excellent Breast Cancer Now event, which was a great chance to hear about some of the incredible research that is being done on that disease in our United Kingdom.
Great research projects often start with relatively small grants from charities such as Breast Cancer Now, which act as the building block for other researchers to jump on board and get with the plan. That is very important. This is not all about the Government starting research projects; it is about institutions such as Queen’s being world-renowned. The lady I met yesterday was clearly on top of her game. She deserves great credit, and I thank her and all her colleagues at Queen’s for the work they do for our country.
We have strong join-up across Government. My Department, DFID, Public Health England and the Foreign Office in particular take a “one HMG” approach to global health, which was recently praised by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. That includes regular meetings between Ministers, and a co-ordination group of senior officials meets very regularly to look strategically at our international activity and some of the programmes I mentioned. It includes joint delegations to WHO meetings and daily contact between our officials. It also includes joint working on projects such as the UK public health rapid support team. That is a partnership between the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that, at countries’ request, deploys people rapidly to some of the poorest parts of the world to investigate significant disease outbreaks and support capacity building. I mentioned examples of times when that has been invaluable, such as during the Ebola crisis.
In concluding, let me return to the incredible achievements of our NHS over the past 70 years, during which time life expectancy has leapt. Its staff work tirelessly to ensure that it remains the best in the world. We are committed to ensuring that it provides universal health coverage in the UK for generations to come, but we do not keep it all to ourselves—we are desperately keen to go on sharing our knowledge to help other countries do the same, so that people around the world can benefit from the incredible privileges we have in this country.
Mr Shannon, would you like to make some concluding remarks?
I certainly would, Mr McCabe. I thank you for chairing the debate so well. I also thank the hon. Members for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)—my pronunciation is probably all wrong—and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), whose contributions were immense. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) highlighted important issues with the BCG vaccine.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. He always says that he is pleased to be in his position because he has a deep interest in the subject, and that was illustrated by his responses to everyone who spoke. He was right to say that we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the NHS and its excellent work, and to focus on what we can do both here and around the world. I am glad he mentioned the importance of remembering, whenever we think about diseases and healthcare in this country, that we also have to prepare for the diseases that come into the country from outside. We have a joint approach, in which the NHS delivers great healthcare here and we share that healthcare around the world. For that, we are eternally grateful.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the role of universal health coverage in tackling preventable and treatable diseases.