Trading Places: how has COVID changed the narrative around the biggest NHS clinical priorities?
As the NHS looks to return to pre-COVID activity levels, how has the pandemic shifted the political prioritisation towards major healthcare conditions?
Try and cast your mind back to December 2019; Boris had led the Conservative Party to its most decisive election victory since the 1980s, and the country had a semblance of political and economic stability.
Given this significant change in the Commons’ colours, between January – February 2020, MHP Health, in collaboration with Savanta ComRes, undertook a poll of MPs to assess their opinions on the top clinical priorities for the NHS in 2020 and whether they were prepared enough to scrutinise the workings of the NHS, based upon their current knowledge of the role and function of various healthcare bodies.
While the results showed some interesting themes in terms of clinical priorities – we only had to fast-forward by a couple of weeks and there really was only one clinical priority in town. COVID-19.
Given the consumptive effect of COVID on healthcare system design and delivery, as well as the ongoing effects of non-COVID care and treatment, we decided to re-run the poll four months later to see how COVID-19 has changed MPs’ views on clinical priorities. This report outlines the findings from the two polls and gives us the opportunity to understand how the pandemic has changed how politicians view other parts of the NHS.
This benchmarking exercise feels important for a number of reasons. As the immediate peak of infections passed, attention turned to how the crisis was impacting non-COVID healthcare activity.
By mid-April there were regular media reports showing dramatic declines in urgent admissions for stroke and heart attacks. The consequences of delayed and cancelled operations and treatments become a powerful media narrative, with the cancer community especially effective in demonstrating how the lockdown would adversely impact on cancer outcomes. But how can the impact of these interventions be measured? Action taken by the NHS is the most obvious metric, but the extent to which key stakeholders prioritise one condition over another is another powerful driver of decision making.
Having been the singular focus of the NHS machine for half of this year, COVID must now be addressed concurrently with other deserving healthcare priorities. As if it didn’t have enough on its metaphorical plate, the health and social care service must now deliver a coordinated performance: accelerating the return to near-normal levels of non-COVID health activity whilst maintaining vigilance to a probable second COVID infection spike.
Capacity is the biggest constraint in this environment. Neglected conditions must jostle for prioritisation as healthcare leaders reassess the pledges in the NHS Long Term Plan. The fiscal and political situation has shifted remarkably since its publication, and there will now be an onus on those with a stake in the healthcare sector to make their voice heard in the new reality.
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