Dan Poulter: NHS will be overwhelmed without action to prevent rising tide of ill health

Dr Dan Poulter and Keir Starmer
Dr Dan Poulter says he is 'excited' that the next Labour government will take 'brave measures' to tackle public health - Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe

The NHS will be overwhelmed without brave measures to prevent a “rising tide of ill health”, a former minister who defected to Labour has said.

In his first intervention since crossing the floor, Dr Dan Poulter said Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, deserved “great credit for taking a stand against the inevitable accusations of ‘nanny state’”.

Labour has pledged to introduce a ban on junk food advertising, supervised toothbrushing at school for young children and to stop the sales of energy drinks to under-16s, and to divert billions of pounds from hospital treatment into GP services and prevention of ill-health.

Dr Poulter attacks his former party, suggesting that the NHS could collapse under the weight of avoidable diseases without such measures to improve the health of the country.

Writing for The Telegraph, the medic, who was a health minister in the Coalition Government from 2012 to 2015, said: “Today the NHS is struggling with the consequences of focusing too much on treating ill-health instead of preventing it. My NHS colleagues and I see those consequences walking through our hospital and GP surgery doors every day. More than one million hospital admissions a year are linked to obesity, a condition costing the NHS £6 billion a year and rising. 75,000 GP appointments a month are taken up by the effects of smoking.”

Without measures to improve the health of the nation, the burden could push the NHS beyond breaking point, he suggested.

‘Courageous stance’

“Our ageing society and the rising tide of ill-health in our country could soon overwhelm the NHS,” he writes. “Unless we act to plug the gaps, and focus more on preventing ill health, the NHS will become unsustainable.”

The MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, continued: “Keir Starmer deserves great credit for taking a stand against the inevitable accusations of ‘nanny state’. His Labour Party is proposing a serious plan to improve the health of our country, and put the NHS on a more sustainable footing. It is a courageous and important stance to take in the middle of an election campaign but one of principle, which will deliver healthier and longer lives for our children and grandchildren.”

When Dr Poulter announced his defection in April, he made claims that only the Labour Party could “cure” the NHS.

He said working as a mental health doctor in A&E over the past year had shown him how desperate the situation facing the health service had become.

‘Empty rhetoric’

In his article, the MP accuses his former party of a failure to act on public health.

He said the introduction of a ban on smoking in cars with children – introduced when he was minister for child health – was his own proudest achievement in 14 years as an MP.

As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson pledged to introduce a ban on junk food advertising, but it was repeatedly delayed, and has yet to be introduced.

Dr Poulter, who is not standing for re-election on July 4, said: “The Covid pandemic should have spurred our nation into further action on public health. Boris Johnson emerged from his hospital bed determined to tackle obesity. But every proposal he made turned out to be empty rhetoric and has been shelved by his successors.”

He said he was concerned that “the libertarian wing of my former party has become too dominant” and suggested that plans to phase out the sale of cigarettes had been ditched by Rishi Sunak because more than 100 Tory MPs voted against it or abstained.

The Tory manifesto does pledge to press on with the Smoking and Vaping Bill.

Dr Poulter said: “As a former health minister and a doctor, I know that prevention is better than cure. As a former Conservative MP, I’m ashamed that Rishi Sunak’s party has abandoned the pitch when it comes to public health. As a Labour supporter, I am excited that the next Labour government will take brave measures to give every child a healthy, happy start to life.”


Labour has a serious plan to improve the health of our country

by Dr Dan Poulter

In 1948, people in Britain lived for an average of 68 years. The longer lives we can expect to live today are a great achievement of post-war civilised society. The result of better standards of living, the triumph of science over disease, and the National Health Service.

The NHS was the answer to the countless numbers dying early because they lacked the means to pay for healthcare. But alongside our NHS came important improvements in public health, including programmes of mass immunisation, slum clearance, and in recent decades, action to tackle smoking and obesity. Unless we continue to deliver public health improvements which focus on preventing ill health, our NHS will face ever greater pressures.

Today the NHS is struggling with the consequences of focusing too much on treating ill-health instead of preventing it. My NHS colleagues and I see those consequences walking through our hospital and GP surgery doors every day. More than one million hospital admissions a year are linked to obesity, a condition costing the NHS £6 billion a year and rising. 75,000 GP appointments a month are taken up by the effects of smoking.

Our ageing society and the rising tide of ill-health in our country could soon overwhelm the NHS. As shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting has rightly said simply meeting this challenge by pouring more money into the service would be like pouring water into a leaky bucket. Unless we act to plug the gaps, and focus more on preventing ill health, the NHS will become unsustainable.

I was proud to be the minister for child health in the coalition government which introduced the ban on smoking in cars with children. It was a policy that prevented children from developing asthma, bronchitis, and cancer. It saved lives and is my proudest achievement in my 14 years as a Member of Parliament.

The Covid pandemic should have spurred our nation into further action on public health. Boris Johnson emerged from his hospital bed determined to tackle obesity. But every proposal he made turned out to be empty rhetoric and has been shelved by his successors.

I am concerned that the libertarian wing of my former party has become too dominant, making the action we need to improve Britain’s health impossible under a Conservative Government. Even Rishi Sunak’s landmark piece of legislation, the Smoking and Vaping Bill, saw over 100 Conservative MPs vote against it or abstain, which was why it was ditched in the dying days of the last Parliament.

Keir Starmer deserves great credit for taking a stand against the inevitable accusations of “nanny state”. His Labour Party is proposing a serious plan to improve the health of our country, and put the NHS on a more sustainable footing. It is a courageous and important stance to take in the middle of an election campaign but one of principle, which will deliver healthier and longer lives for our children and grandchildren.

From the mental health support this lockdown generation desperately requires, to preventing the next generation from smoking, this is the change our society and our NHS need.

As a former health minister and a doctor, I know that prevention is better than cure. As a former Conservative MP, I’m ashamed that Mr Sunak’s party has abandoned the pitch when it comes to public health. As a Labour supporter, I am excited that the next Labour government will take brave measures to give every child a healthy, happy start to life.