Back to school - a busy autumn ahead

Feeling recharged from a summer holiday, Russell looks to the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, as the College is working hard to ensure the new UK Government prioritises child health.

As we enter the new academic year, the College is gearing up for a challenging autumn term. I’m just back from two weeks camping in the beautiful Isles of Scilly. I’m never sure whether to tell people how beautiful, and peaceful it is or tell them it’s a windswept rain-lashed wasteland that they should never consider visiting. It was however an opportunity to have a holiday from the digital onslaught – and I am feeling recharged and ready to deal with the opportunities and challenges that no doubt lie ahead for all of us.

New UK Government, same old issues

It has certainly been mostly change within the UK Government. Change on this scale is always a challenge; new relationships have to be established, priorities sounded out and our calls for action reiterated to a new audience.

At the College, we have been working hard to forge new relationships and strengthen existing ones within the Department for Health and Social Care and NHS England over the summer. I myself have written to a number of new Ministers – including the Prime Minister – setting out key college priorities. Matt Hancock retaining his position as Health Secretary is helpful for consistency as is Baroness Blackwood continuing in her role as Health Minister for Innovation, particularly following her visit to the College in July for the British Paediatric Surveillance Unit tea party. There are other new Ministers with responsibility for public health and for mental health, and we will work hard to ensure Government continues efforts to combat childhood obesity and children and young people’s mental health issues.

Robust plans that are communicated with patients in good time is critical

But in terms of Brexit, it feels that the same knotty issues are dominating all areas of public life, as you will know too well. I have written to you all a number of times on this over the last year and our line has consistently been that in the midst of the political argument the key issues for children and young people’s health are consistent access to medicines, a strong workforce and preserving our research strengths - and that it is uncertainty that is most damaging. This feels as true now as any time in the past three years.

As paediatricians, we need to know that patients are placed at the centre of preparedness and College will continue to do all it can to ensure that the Department for Health and Social Care, NHS England and Ministers listen. A priority will be making sure that the UK Government develops clear public information, but this needs to have input from us working on the NHS frontline. I have written to the Prime Minister and Secretary of State to press the importance of developing robust plans that are communicated with patients in good time. This is critical for children and young people and their families.

In the midst of the July political uncertainties, the UK Government released its Prevention Green Paper. We had been pushing strong for a range of actions for children and young people, and there were positive announcements for children although it’s perhaps no surprise that the politics of the moment meant that the green paper didn’t have the impact it might have. It’s a green paper so there is an official consultation now open. The College will respond but it’s important members have their say too – you can find guidance about how you can shape our response.

There remains a significant amount to do to help an NHS that is under serious pressure

It is easy to be discouraged by political uncertainty and change. Yet as an incorrigible optimist, I think there are some positive signs. I was hugely pleased by the fact that Boris Johnson has signalled the Government’s commitment to boost the number of children and young people receiving key vaccinations.  Many of you will have seen the recent increase in measles cases, and the fact that the UK has lost its ‘measles-free’ status.  We look forward to seeing the forthcoming vaccination strategy and how it will be resourced, and will be very active arguing for continued action to get vaccine levels up where they belong.

Also, at last, we have also seen an acknowledgement of the growing crisis in retaining senior doctors because of punitive tax measures on pensions.  It simply does not make sense to punish doctors for taking on extra work. Whilst the workforce challenge within the NHS is huge, this is a small but positive step and I hope similar bold action is taken on all the other workforce pressures facing the NHS.

Careers campaign

Before I finish, I wanted to update you on a key new initiative we are preparing around recruitment and retention in paediatrics. We announced at the College meeting in May that we would be launching a Careers Campaign, and this will be launching soon.

The aim is to do what we can to encourage young doctors to enter paediatrics, and, just as importantly, to help people stay in paediatrics long term. This has of course been a long term focus of the RCPCH and much of what we do with governments and the NHS around the UK is trying to address strain in the system and the working lives of our members. However, we think a renewed focus on what it means to be a paediatrician and how we keep people in the profession is needed. 

Thank you to those of you that kindly spent time sharing your insights through our surveys and also sending in applications for video material we are developing for the campaign.  Our campaign will focus on both recruitment and retention.