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Read Munira Wilson's full speech at Autumn Conference, where she takes the Government to task over their coronavirus failures and sets out a bold vision for public health moving forward.

September 28, 2020 9:41 AM
By Munira Wilson,

Health

Ten months ago, I was standing on a doorstep. It was dark. It was freezing cold. It was a few days before polling day. I was talking to a lovely couple, one of whom broke down in tears. She was a nurse at our local hospital and she was telling me how she and her colleagues were struggling to cope. They were stressed out, burnt out and desperately needed more staff.

So when I got elected and Ed asked me to be Health & Social Care Spokesperson for the party, I knew I had my work cut out: waiting lists skyrocketing, vacancies at record levels, many hospitals falling apart at the seams and no solution to the long-running crisis in social care.

And then Covid happened. In the face of a catastrophe that has cut across every aspect of our lives, we have watched Boris Johnson's Government blunder through crisis after crisis, failure after failure.

We are seeing the shocking impacts of isolation and bereavement on the mental health of people across the country, as well as the devastating physical toll of this virus.

We have witnessed the failure to protect our frontline workers with adequate equipment.

And - more than six months into this crisis - we still don't have the "world-beating" test and trace system that Boris Johnson promised us months ago.

As we head into a second wave, not only is this completely and utterly unacceptable, it is reckless. This Government's incompetence is putting lives and livelihoods at risk.

We need the Government to fix things here and now, to avoid the need for another national lockdown, and to ensure our NHS doesn't collapse this winter. But we also need Ministers to accept that this is a moment for real change.

The coronavirus has not just laid bare the fundamental problems facing our NHS and care sectors, it has exposed in technicolour the health inequalities facing the UK, and shown us why we need to rethink the way we see healthcare as a whole.

We have seen the impact of poor and overcrowded housing, insecure employment and our broken welfare system on not just our physical health, but also our mental health and wellbeing.

For years we've heard stories of how, for example, if you lived in Chelsea you would be expected to live on average nine years longer than someone from Blackpool.

Somehow, health inequality had become accepted. But coronavirus has cruelly shone a spotlight on this scourge in our society.

We have seen those health inequalities play out in real time, most shockingly in the disproportionate impact of COVID on people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, on people with disabilities, and on the poorest.

When we think about the future, it's clear that going "back to normal" is not an option.

It is time to re-boot and re-think the way we live our lives - and the Government's role in helping us to do so in a more sustainable, healthier way.

This is not just about how we care for our physical health, but how we ensure we support mental health and wellbeing too.

Whilst we all want people to live longer lives, we want them to enjoy a good quality of life as long as possible. Health is wealth.

As a country we must decide that health can no longer just be about treatment. We need to prioritise prevention.

We cannot just rely on the NHS to always pick up the pieces.

Especially not when people's lives and wellbeing are shattered by the Government's own policies. Like the failure to provide adequate housing, or to ensure children don't go hungry, or to keep people from tipping over a financial precipice.

It simply makes no sense to have a welfare system which pushes people into poverty, with knock-on health impacts and costs, or to fail to tackle air pollution, which has such damaging health consequences. We need a society where our housing, our education, the jobs we do and the air we breathe are helping to keep us healthy.

Not only do we need to reinstate the funding that was cut from public health budgets by the Conservatives, but we need a much more joined up approach to public health. This means thinking about the health impact of decisions taken at every level of government, from local authorities to Whitehall Departments.

Liberal Democrats have long-championed a public health approach. We already advocate a public health approach to serious violence. And we also know the public health benefits of excellent education, high quality housing and environmental stewardship.

It's about creating virtuous circles, not vicious cycles.

That is why, as well as getting a grip on the immediate COVID crisis, I want to see Boris Johnson put public health at the top of his agenda in the long-term.

That starts with making someone at the Cabinet table responsible: a Minister for Wellbeing who will scrutinise the Government's actions and ensure they are fundamentally in keeping with health and wellbeing.

As well as this, in the same way that Equality Impact Assessments pushed equality up the agenda, we need to introduce wellbeing assessments to make sure new laws empower people to live healthier lives.

Underpinning it all - as ever - we need a well-funded, well-resourced, resilient healthcare system, to support our physical and mental health in "normal" times, and in times of crisis.

We still don't know what the future holds when it comes to COVID-19, but, after the chaos and heartache we have endured this year, we should not have to fight to put health and wellbeing at the top of the agenda. It's what people expect.

https://www.libdems.org.uk/frontline