Insights from Conservative Conference: Health and social care fringe events focus beyond ABCD priorities

While Thérèse Coffey’s speech at Conservative Party Conference may have added little to her recently announced Plan for Patients, the fringe was awash with ideas and discussion on how the Government could not only solve the immediate crunch facing health and social care this winter, but futureproof it for 2023 and beyond. 

James Sunderland MP, who took on the Parliamentary Private Secretary for Health role days before the Conference, put in a surprise appearance at Onward’s event: Putting people first: How can a patient’s experience of the NHS and social care inform and improve its future? Two key anecdotes stood out which could provide some useful hints for those looking for further clarity on current health and care workforce policy thinking.

He reflected on the announcement by the Secretary of State, just two weeks ago, of a two-year extension of the Temporary Register legislation, which allowed health and care professionals to return to practice from retirement or career breaks to boost the health and care workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. He emphasised his support for getting more retired professionals back into practice, and shared a personal anecdote about his mother, who has continued her nursing career into her mid seventies. As for what he does not want, Mr Sunderland was outspoken in his criticism of the level of pay received by locum doctors, and suggested that the amount they are paid could be better spent elsewhere. He drew on this to support his argument that it is not more money that the NHS needs, but better spending of its current funding.

Meanwhile, Damian Green MP was also highlighting workforce issues at Reform’s event: High quality, fairly funded: the future of adult social care. Mr Green argued that there should be a proper workforce plan for social care to address delayed discharges. He was strongly supportive of linking the pay of care workers to NHS pay scales, to stop care workers leaving the profession for roles in NHS hospitals or elsewhere. He also felt that care needs to be better promoted as a career, and that the new Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) should provide the solution to care being both better integrated and better funded. He was strong in his view that, while these changes should be delivered locally, reforms should be funded by increased taxes at a national level, commenting that: “Those that can pay, should pay more”. A mantra that, for the Conservative Party, carries even more sensitivity than usual, given the events of recent days.

The role of ICBs in addressing localised health and care issues was the focus of the Centre for Cities and Policy@Manchester event: How do we level up health inequalities across the UK? There was widespread agreement from the panel of speakers that poor health was having a strong negative impact on productivity in local communities. Cllr Abi Brown, Leader of Stoke City Council, felt that there was a clear job to be done to address the fact that although good health and a thriving economy are intrinsically linked, they are often treated as entirely separate in policy circles. The boldest suggestion from this panel though came from an ICB representative. Liz Gaulton, Chief Officer for Health and Inequalities at NHS Coventry and Warwickshire, told the crowded room: “We need a plan for population health, not just for patients”.

Although the Secretary of State may have used her Conference speech to double down on her ABCD agenda, there was no shortage of suggestions for the other 22 letters of the alphabet from the fringe. But with concerns mounting that the promised Health Inequalities White Paper may be scrapped, it remains to be seen what ideas she will take on board.

Luther Pendragon is one of the UK’s most highly-regarded independent communications consultancies, with a 30 year track record of helping organisations – including those in the health and social care sector – understand and effectively engage with political opportunities and tell compelling stories to the people that matter. Contact us to find out how we can help your organisation make an impact.