In an election campaign that is shrouded in uncertainty, there is one thing we can be sure of. The health and social care system matters. It matters to voters, with polls this year consistently showing that the NHS is their top election issue. It matters to policy makers, who have been grappling with the practicalities of issues such as integration for decades. But most importantly, it matters for people diagnosed with a debilitating health condition, such as dementia, having to face a complex and daunting service.
On dementia, there has been progress. I was proud to be the Health Secretary who published the first ever National Dementia Strategy in 2009.
And, as I wrote last year, the coalition government deserves praise for the focus they have placed on dementia, with initiatives such as the Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia and the Dementia Friends social movement. However, as those of us in the Westminster village get excited about swing seats, hung parliaments and latest opinion polling we risk taking our eye off what really matters to the voters.
There are currently 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK. This number is set to rise to 1 million by the end of the next parliament. This is an issue that demands attention and action from whoever is in office come May 8th. Despite the progress I outlined earlier there are still major areas where improvements are badly needed. Around half of people living with dementia still do not receive a formal diagnosis, denying them access to suitable information support and potential treatments. If you’re diagnosed with cancer you can rightly expect support and information from a range of sources, yet with dementia it is left to family and loved ones to pick up the pieces. A survey last year for Alzheimer’s Society showed that 90% of people with dementia felt the support they received after diagnosis was inadequate. And in the search for a cure for the condition, spending on research lags behind cancer by a factor of seven to one.
With the challenges posed by dementia so stark, it should be a matter of urgency to have a national policy framework in place. And yet, there remains considerable uncertainty over the future of dementia strategy and policy in the UK. The National Dementia Strategy for England (NDSE), introduced while I was Secretary of State for Health expired last year. The Prime Minister’s Challenge on dementia, which has placed a political focus on the condition over the past 3 years, has also come to an end. Recent announcements from the current government on further investment in dementia are welcome, along with aspirations set out for the ‘Prime Minister’s Challenge 2020’. However, this falls short of the detailed, ambitious strategy needed to deliver improvements for people with dementia and their families.
This does not compare favourably with other countries. France has launched its fourth national dementia strategy, while in the US President Obama has published an ambitious plan until 2025. These are bold and aspiring plans, necessary to meet the scale of the challenge. We, however, lack a long term vision for dementia and are in danger of falling far behind the commitments made by our international partners.
It is vital that a successor to the National Strategy and Prime Minister’s Challenge on dementia is delivered soon. It must address the issues outlined accompanied by appropriate resources and strong accountability. Last month, Andy Burnham set out his vision for modern health and care service fit for the 21st century. This has followed the last five years where social services cuts have left many people with dementia and their families struggling to get the support they need. A Labour government, addressing the needs of the whole person would ensure that people with dementia, their families and carers are properly supported throughout their illness.
Whatever the outcome of this year’s election, politicians must prioritise dementia and deliver a new national strategy. For the good of the NHS, the good of social services and most importantly, for the good of people living with dementia.