The government has said it intends to apply the lessons from the fast-track development of the Covid-19 vaccines to tackling some of the UK’s other pressing health challenges, including obesity and addiction.
The initiative, which is being led by prime minister Rishi Sunak, health secretary Steve Barclay, and business secretary Grant Shapps, is aiming to use the same vaccine taskforce model that was used in the pandemic to address a range of other health concerns.
The aim is to invest more than £113m into four healthcare ‘missions’ – cancer, obesity, mental health, and addiction – to, as the government has put it, “unlock the next generation of medicines and diagnostics to save lives, transform patient care and ensure UK patients are the first to benefit from medical breakthroughs”.
If successful as an approach, ministers hope it will also save the NHS and economy millions of pounds. For example, it is estimated obesity costs the NHS £6.1bn a year and poor mental health costs the economy £118bn a year.
Sunak said: “This funding will improve outcomes for patients, ease existing pressures on the system and ensure that we are among the first to benefit from medical breakthroughs. Importantly it will also help save the NHS millions of pounds that could otherwise be spent on patient care – for example by tackling obesity which costs the health service over £6 billion annually.
“It is hugely welcome too that the highly successful vaccine taskforce, which procured millions of life-saving vaccines in record time during the pandemic, will now become a blueprint for how we harness the best talent and expertise from around the world and drive investment in research and development,” he added.
Public health challenges
In terms of what’s actually going to happen as a result, the government has said £22.5m will go into cancer research to develop new immune-based cancer therapies, including cancer vaccines, which are targeted to a patient’s specific cancer.
A further £40.2m will be invested into research into mental health to develop and introduce digital technologies to support patients.This could include technology allowing patients to monitor their mental health at home and instantly report to their doctor if in need of help. Funding will be targeted at the Midlands and North in particular, the government said.
On obesity, a £20m trial will look at how best to deliver new medicines and technologies for people living with obesity, particularly in deprived communities across the UK.
The government said: “This will help new medicines coming to market – some of which have the potential to reduce a person’s weight by more than 20% – to better support people to achieve a healthy weight.
“The mission will explore how these medicines can be combined with cutting-edge technologies and digital tools to improve long-term health outcomes,” it added.
On addiction, the aim is to spend £30.5m, including funds contributed through collaboration with Scottish government, which will be deployed to accelerate the development of new technologies to prevent deaths from overdoses across the UK.
“This could include wearable devices which can detect the onset of a drug overdose and signal to first responders to prevent deaths, and better support people with substance use disorders to manage and combat their addiction,” the government said.
“Funding will also help grow research capacity and capability across the UK to better understand addiction and the most effective ways to treat it as a chronic healthcare condition,” it added.
The investment and new approach was welcomed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, with president Dr Adrian James saying: “Investment in technology can improve care, increase productivity, and release staff time. We know that technologies play a critical role in improving access, supporting patients and enabling mental health services to deliver the care people need.”
However Dr James also warned ministers not to see simply throwing money at the problem as a panacea solution. “As the government seeks to expand and improve the use of technology, it is essential this is matched by a fully resourced mental health workforce plan and a focus on tackling the root causes of mental illness,” he said, highlighting the ongoing impact of the cost of living crisis and mental health referral waits.
“Urgent government action is required to relieve unprecedented levels of pressure on the NHS and mental health services,” Dr James added.