When I was appointed health secretary nine months ago, one of the areas of health that I decided to make an early priority was that of prevention. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, or in other words, it's more prudent to head off a disaster beforehand than to deal with it after it occurs. The proverb has been traced back to 'De Legibus' by English Jurist Henry De Bracton in 1240 and it still holds true today, nearly 800 years later. We have made great progress in improving the health of the nation by helping people to live longer lives. However, people are spending too many years in poor health, with these gains in health not felt equally across society. But this is not inevitable; much of ill health can be prevented. For example, in England, a boy born in the poorest parts of our country will die nine years earlier, and live 19 more years in poor health, than a boy born in the richest areas. Focusing on prevention, from the start of life all the way through to the end of life will help to put everyone on a more level playing field. Good health starts with the right pre-natal care, immunisation, nutritional support, fitness advice, minimising social media and mental health harms, secure employment, financial independence, safe housing, help with bad habits, and friends and family to fight loneliness. Good physical and mental health is central to our happiness. It enables us to engage fully in community life, and with the things that matter most. Our objective is to ensure that people can enjoy at least five extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the experience of the richest and poorest.
The focus on prevention is something we can all buy into, both the government and the individual. From the government’s perspective, we are putting in an additional £20.5bn into health and social care over the next five years. This is the single largest cash injection for the NHS ever, giving us a huge opportunity to fundamentally change the focus of health and social care onto prevention. We need to keep people healthy and well, living in the community, and out of hospital for longer. This means having services which target the root causes of poor health and promote the health of the whole individual. Locally, there is excellent work going on. In West Suffolk, our outstanding local hospital already works with community teams, the voluntary sector and increasingly with GPs in a way that other hospitals are starting to emulate. Better health not only reduces the pressures on the NHS, social care, but it also reduces the impact on and other public services, including crime, justice and welfare.
But prevention is not only the responsibility of government. The responsibility of prevention also lies with individuals and families – it’s important to me, not only as health secretary, but also as the local MP and as an individual too. Every day we make dozens of small decisions that affect our health in the long term. These could be choices such as the type of snack we grab when we are hungry, the type of drink we choose when we are thirsty, the amount of alcohol we choose to drink, and the decision to smoke or to take illegal drugs or not. These are the everyday decisions that affect our health. But it is also the bigger ones that have an effect too. Where we choose to live, where we work and the type of work we do, our work/life balance and the social connections we make all have a bearing on our long term health. Our decisions can impact on our own health, and also on the health of others; especially our children. This ranges from the meals we prepare for our families, the exercise we encourage children to take, ensuring that they receive the vaccinations they need, and creating the right home environment to nurture them and strengthen their resilience.
There are many parts of society that have a role to play in influencing health: communities, employers, industry, local government, housing, schools and charities. But ultimately, our good health, and how long we remain in good health is an undertaking between ourselves and our health care professionals. And by taking personal responsibility through prevention, we can help to guarantee the long term future of the NHS, so that it is there to deliver for us when we need it.