Our health system must keep people well – not just make them better

·4-min read
Our health system must keep people well – not just make them better
Pfizer has agreed to sell 10 million doses to the UK in the first instance (Reuters)
Pfizer has agreed to sell 10 million doses to the UK in the first instance (Reuters)

The past weekend will have seen families across the United States come together to celebrate the 245th anniversary of American independence from Britain. While the borders of our two countries may now be distinct, however, the need for partnership and collaboration between the US and UK remains as important as ever.

No area has this been better demonstrated than in the life sciences, where over the last 18 months scientists from both the UK and US have worked tirelessly to develop Covid-19 vaccines.

The work continues. But as I reflect on this incredible feat and the year that has gone, I focus on one thing: a healthy nation is our biggest asset for the future. Keeping people well has to be the number one priority for governments. Covid has exposed the deep links between society’s health and the nation’s economic health.

It is now time to build a UK health system that keeps people well, not just makes them better. But to do that requires us to fundamentally rethink how we value our health. And that means seeing it as a long term investment for the country’s future.

To be clear, it is time for policymakers to put prevention first. This means public and private sectors striving together to foster collaboration and drive innovation. We know this approach works because over the last year we’ve seen it in action: world class scientists, healthcare professionals and governments working together in new ways, all in the pursuit of a common mission against a new virus.

Pfizer is an American company, but we are proud of the deep commitment we have to the UK, which extends back almost as long as the NHS has existed. I’m proud of the “special relationship” we’ve built over our last 70 years here in the UK.

We set up home in Sandwich, Kent – which was later used to mass produce Penicillin for US and UK Allied troops during the Second World War. Today, colleagues across all our UK sites collaborate with counterparts worldwide on our Covid-19 vaccine and investigational therapies. Our brightest minds are working to find the solutions to some of the biggest health challenges of our time.

It’s a global effort. Work done on the other side of the world will be further shaped here in the UK, before being sent onto colleagues in other regions to add more incredible know-how. Partnership is how we uncover the breakthroughs that change patients’ lives.

But we want to go further. For instance, there are many more vaccines available for populations. They’re designed to keep people well. To make sure avoidable disease remains just that – avoided. After all, it is surely right to protect our NHS by keeping people well, so precious resources can be focused on those who really need treatment or cure.

Only a few weeks ago, Pfizer opened its first Vaccine Centre of Excellence outside the US. The centre, at the University of Bristol, will conduct real-world, population-based surveillance studies and will help shape scientific thinking here and across the globe. Our aim is to identify and measure the burden of specific vaccine-preventable infectious diseases. Research will also be undertaken to support the design, development and use of next-generation vaccines.

The UK continues to see high child vaccination rates and we should be rightly proud of our world-leading immunisation programme for children. And last year’s decision to expand eligibility for the winter flu vaccination programme via the NHS was a significant moment.

But while good progress has been made, there are still many barriers to overcome, including lack of access, misinformation, complacency, and other health inequalities. This needs to change. Ageing populations put increasing pressure on health systems, and life-course vaccination is a clear example of where a greater emphasis on prevention could significantly improve both our nation’s health and our nation’s economic prosperity.

More should be done to improve adult uptake. Over 70s are eligible for vaccination against shingles, but by the age of 76 around one in four are still unvaccinated. Just one in eight of 65-year-olds were immunised against pneumococcal disease in England between April 2019 and March 2020.

Protecting our most vulnerable from these diseases and keeping them out of hospital is not just the right thing to do, it will relieve the burden on the NHS too at a time when we need it most.

Ben Osborn is Pfizer UK’s managing director

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