A decade on from Andrew Lansley’s controversial shake-up of the NHS in England, the Government has announced its own plans for NHS reform, stripping away unnecessary bureaucracy and driving greater integration of health and care services. Building on work led within the NHS over the last five years and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the reforms will deepen the collaboration between the NHS, councils and other health partners.

The White Paper Integration and innovation: working together to improve health and social care for all’ sets out the Government’s blueprint for the reforms, which will be laid before Parliament as a new Health Bill. There are 3 central pillars to the reforms:

  • NHS and local governments will come together legally to form Integrated Care Systems, which will play an increased role in delivering care in the community. Local services and health and care leaders will also be empowered to make their own decisions based on the needs of their population.
  • Clunky procurement procedures will be simplified, reducing competition within the NHS, freeing up workforce time to provide better patient care, and enabling the adoption of new technology.
  • The Government’s powers over the NHS, lost in the last health service restructuring, will also be regained with greater Ministerial oversight of NHS England.

Many aspects of the reforms have been welcomed by the healthcare community, with Sir Chris Ham, health policy academic and former Chief Executive of the King’s Funds stating “Every previous reorganisation I’ve worked through has been imposed by politicians. This time… the law is catching up with work led locally by the NHS and its partners.”

However, there has also been caution around introducing such wholescale changes to the NHS at a time when the service is at near breaking point with the pandemic. Dr Jennifer Dixon, Chief Executive of The Health Foundation, said “The NHS is currently facing the biggest challenge in its history. With a major backlog of unmet care needs and a workforce crisis to address in the wake of COVID-19, a reorganisation of the health system could cause distraction and disruption.”

For the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries, these reforms may help to break down the confusing range of structures and commissioning arrangements in the NHS that have historically made building mutually beneficial relationships challenging. In an article published this week in Health Service Journal Sir Andrew Dillon, former Chief Executive of NICE, commented that “the relationship between the NHS and pharma is ‘suboptimal’ because of the misalignment of ambitions, constraints and risk appetites.”

The pandemic has emphasised how critical it is that the NHS and the pharmaceutical + life sciences industries work hand-in-hand, and also what can be achieved through genuine partnership on shared goals. There’s a unique opportunity right now to make real progress through greater integration and communication.