Thank you for that welcome –
it’s great to be back together in Manchester.
When we were last here I talked about how proud my mother was.
To see me go from living in a small flat above the shop,
to living above Downing Street.
But I can tell you that she’s even prouder now.
Like many Asian mothers, she always wanted me to be a doctor…
When I told her about this job, she said:
“well you didn’t quite make it to GP,
but at least you’re working in healthcare!”
It really is an honour to serve my country again,
and to be entrusted with such a critical task at this essential moment.
I’ve been in this job for 100 days,
And I can tell you it’s my toughest job yet.
But I’ve been inspired each and every day,
by the commitment and dedication,
of all those on the frontlines of health and social care.
The porters, the paramedics,
the drivers, the doctors,
the nurses, the care workers, the cleaners,
the scientists, the vaccinators.
It’s because of their efforts, and so many others like them…
… thousands of lives, and millions of livelihoods, have been saved.
They’ve brought new meaning to the words “public service”.
So to all those across the nation who stood up
and served their country in this time of peril,
we stand, and salute you.
My priorities are simple:
Covid – getting us, and keeping us, out of the pandemic.
Recovery – tackling the huge backlog of appointments it has caused.
And reform of our health and social care systems for the long-term.
Today, I’m going to look forward.
We can all be here at this conference, and talk about the future,
because of the success of the vaccine programme –
an amazing example of what public-private collaboration can do.
Of course, we cannot afford a single dose of complacency.
This virus has shown itself to be unpredictable.
But so far our vaccine wall of defence has held firm –
and we will keep strengthening it…
brick by brick, jab by jab…
With one of the only national booster programmes in the world.
We took the difficult decision before the summer,
to put our faith in that vaccine wall.
Before that was possible, as a country we sacrificed our freedoms and way of life to protect the elderly and vulnerable.
But as Conservatives we will never see state control as the default.
We know the impact that lockdowns have…
on jobs, life chances, education, mental health, and everything else.
And just as we know “government money” is taxpayers’ money…
…we know that freedoms ultimately belong to citizens.
Because we will always be the party of freeing things up,
not locking things down.
The challenge for us now is this:
getting past the peak of the pandemic…
won’t mean that we’re suddenly immune from all its effects on our society and our economy.
When I came in, I said that I was not just the Covid Secretary,
but the Health & Social Care Secretary.
There was no doubt about the biggest item spilling out of my in-tray:
an NHS waiting list that will get worse before it gets better…
projected to grow as high as 13 million.
No government, no health secretary, no society can accept that.
That’s why we have prioritised elective recovery –
check-ups, scans, surgeries…
with the biggest catch-up fund in the history of the NHS.
And we are already delivering…
including rolling out surgical hubs,
and 40 new Community Diagnostic Centres right across the country.
As we recover, we must recognise that not everyone, or everywhere, has been affected in the same way.
The pandemic has been described as a “great leveller”.
That’s just not true.
Health disparities in our society
– whether regional, racial or socioeconomic –
have only deepened under Covid.
That’s why one of my first visits as Health Secretary was to Blackpool.
One of the nurses told me that you can trace back entrenched health problems there for over a century.
Do you know what the gap in healthy life expectancy is,
between Blackpool and Richmond upon Thames?
Almost 20 years.
It’s time to level up on health.
The state was needed in this pandemic more than anytime in peacetime.
But government shouldn’t own all risks and responsibilities in life.
We as citizens have to take some responsibility for our health too.
We shouldn’t always go first to the state.
What kind of society would that be?
Health – and social care – begins at home.
Family first, then community, then the state.
If you do need support…
we live in a compassionate, developed country that can afford to help with that.
There are few higher callings than to care for another person.
Some of you know that I got up to some antics as a student…
…I got thrown out of party conference,
for campaigning against the ERM.
I was a cool kid.
What you might not know about my time as a student,
back in Exeter,
is that every Saturday I would visit a care home as a volunteer
to keep the residents company.
Especially a great lady called Margaret, who I became very fond of.
That experience left a real impression on me –
of the importance of dignity in our later years,
and of the dedication of care workers.
Now as we all approach our later years…
… we can plan with confidence that we and our families will be protected from catastrophic costs.
This has been a long-term challenge that has been ducked for far too long.
And I’m proud to work for a Prime Minister willing to finally take it on.
So our values as a party, a government, and a country – are clear.
Time and again, we choose to prioritise the health of our citizens.
We have absolutely nothing to prove on that.
But it’s also true that if you value something, or someone…
you want them to be the best they can be.
The NHS may have the best principle behind it,
staffed by some of the best people our country has to offer.
But that of course doesn’t mean that as an organisation,
it is the best at everything.
It wouldn’t help anyone to pretend otherwise.
Our undeniable commitment to the NHS is what should drive us to make it as effective as it can be.
Because ultimately it is our national health service,
and is only as good as the service it provides our citizens.
The public rightly and proudly expect a service that is free at the point of use.
But they also expect that service to deliver for them –
wherever they live in the country.
They expect to be able to see their GP, in the way that they choose.
And to have a relationship with their service that goes beyond picking up the pieces when things go wrong.
In the past, some governments chose cash, others chose reform.
That’s a false choice.
You can’t have one without the other.
So yes, we will continue to prioritise funding for the NHS in the wake of this global pandemic.
But I also promise you this:
2022 will be a year of renewal and reform.
At a time like this, business as usual cannot be good enough.
I’ve worked with some of the largest organisations in the world…
and two factors stand out on whether they succeed:
Leadership, and innovation.
I want the NHS to embrace innovation and to build a truly modern, digitised system.
That’s the only way we can drive down that backlog,
and build a sustainable service for the future.
Of course there are some bright spots…
but there is a lot of levelling-up to do within the NHS.
That’s not just about tech –
it’s about management, and a focus on outcomes not just inputs.
And so to help with that mission,
I have asked retired General, Sir Gordon Messenger,
to lead a review of leadership and management in health and social care.
This will be the most far-reaching review since Roy Griffith’s report to Margaret Thatcher in 1983.
It will shine a light on the outstanding leaders who drive efficiency and innovation,
and see how we can replicate that leadership throughout the country.
No reform is easy, otherwise it would’ve been done already.
But if we get it right,
no – when we get it right…
we won’t build back the way things were.
We’ll build a future where our health and social care systems are integrated more seamlessly together.
Where British life sciences lead the world on new treatments.
Where we have not only the best surgeons,
but robots performing live-saving surgeries.
And where we don’t just treat diseases and ill health,
but prevent far more of them from happening.
This last year will be remembered for decades to come,
perhaps even for centuries.
People locked in their homes.
Closed schools and empty streets.
Intensive care units struggling to cope.
We are emerging now, taking the first steps in a new era.
As we go from Covid, to recovery, to reform.
This is a time for head and heart.
Of compassion but also firmness of purpose.
Let’s be sure that in generations to come people say
they fought the virus,
won the peace,
and owned the future.
Let’s make this the era of recovery.
Let’s make this the era of reform.
Let’s make this the era in which we truly build back better.