David Stewart’s speech closing the Health Debate at today’s Scottish Labour Conference

Chair, Conference,
David Stewart MSP, Highlands and Islands.

Conference, let me take you back in time… three score years and ten ago, our Party created the National Health Service.
– World leading.
– World beating.
– World changing.
The jewel in the crown of the Welfare State.
Crowning glory of the post-war Labour Government.
A personal triumph for Nye Bevan – Secretary of State for Health.
Achieved in the teeth of opposition of the Tories, the private sector, the establishment.
A National Health Service – where they checked your pulse, not your purse – free at the point of use. A godsend for the poor, the disadvantaged, the old.
No more worries and concerns about doctors or hospital bills. No more headaches about paying for essential medicines.

On 5 July 1948, Sylvia Beckingham was admitted to hospital to be treated for a liver condition. That was a big event in her life, but it was an even bigger event in British history. The 13 year old was the first ever patient to be treated by the NHS. Sylvia Beckingham was patient alpha, the first of millions to have their lives transformed by a truly dynamic and revolutionary Labour Government.

In common with every speaker in this debate, every delegate in this hall, I am passionate about the NHS. It is not just another issue, another debate, another headline. I have family and personal connections with the service – my brother in law is a mental health nurse, my neighbour is a midwife and one of my best friends is a senior staff nurse.

NHS is there for the good times and the sad times. In 1991, Linda and I lost our youngest son, Liam. He was eight months old. Even through our grief, we were overwhelmed by the support of ambulance staff, emergency room nurses and doctors. The Scottish Cot Death Trust then supported us for the crucial few years after Liam’s death.

The NHS has changed, developed and matured through the decades since 1948.

The 1960s saw the first British heart, liver and kidney transplants. Indeed, the first kidney transplant took place in Scotland, in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. The 1970s saw the first IVF treatment as well as computerised tomography scans which revolutionised how doctors examine patients.

I am proud of what the NHS achieves. I am prouder still of its hard-working front line staff – the junior doctors, nurses, midwives, consultants, GPS, allied health professionals, porters and receptionists.

But despite the hard work and commitments of its staff, we face challenges which have been touched on in this debate.
– An aging population.
– Pressures on social care.
– The need for robust workforce planning, now and post-Brexit.
– A growing mental health crisis.

As our speakers in the debate have argued – NHS staff in Scotland have been underpaid, undervalued and under resourced, and patients have been feeling the pain of it, with A&E targets being missed, planned operations being cancelled, bed days lost to delayed discharge, social care budgets being slashed and seven out of eight key targets being missed for two years.

The nature of these public health challenges may look modern but under the surface, the root causes are the same old story: poverty, social deprivation and inequality are significant contributors to poor health expectations, and it is the least well off who are most at risk. We need to reverse the inverse care law, under which patients who are most in need of healthcare have the least access to it.

Inequality in health was a serious issue when the NHS was created and sadly it remains one now. Life expectancy in the UK has stalled and in the past 30 years the chasm between the health outcomes of the rich and the poor has widened. Is it not an outrage that in the 21st Century an individual’s health expectations are intrinsically tied to their postcodes?

But our health inequalities are, in fact, a symptom; a symptom of wider social inequalities that can never be solved by the NHS alone.

Surely the key for our movement is to dismantle the socio-economic inequalities which see the disadvantaged die younger than those in more affluent suburbs.

Mental health has been a key element in this morning’s debate and is also impacted by socio-economic factors. People living in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to report common mental health problems compared to the least deprived.

As Scottish Diabetes Champion, I looked at research from the University of Edinburgh that found that people with Type 1 Diabetes living in the most deprived areas of Scotland have higher blood glucose levels than those from the least deprived. Social deprivation is often linked to higher levels of physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, smoking and poor blood pressure control, all of which can further increase the risk of developing the serious complications of Type 1 diabetes.

Conference, to be serious about improving the health expectations of all our citizens means to be determined to eradicate poverty in Scottish communities.

Richard Leonard understands this.
Scottish Labour understands this.
The Trade Union movement understands this.

As Nye Bevan famously said:
“The NHS will last as long as there’s folk left with faith to fight for it.”