The Week

The Week, 17 June 2022

It’s been another packed policy week — seems there was something in that threat of a policy blitz.

Timed for London Tech week, on Monday we saw the publication of both a new UK digital strategy and a new health data strategy, and the launch of an independent review of the UK’s advanced computing capabilities. Today, DCMS published their response to the consultation ‘Data: a new direction’.

In non-digital news, the Government also published a new food strategy on Monday, and yesterday published a white paper on the private rented sector. Today they announced the appointment of a new women’s health tsar, Dame Lesley Regan.

Here’s your slightly longer than usual Week, grab a cup of (iced!) tea and read our summary of the latest policy blitz…

The new UK Digital Strategy starts by citing four “foundational pillars” that will underpin a “vibrant, resilient and growing digital economy”: infrastructure, data, “a light-touch pro-innovation regulatory framework”, and secure digital environment. So far, so familiar. It then goes on to summarise everything already in train to enable a competitive, innovative and secure digital economy — from the National Data Strategy, through the Plan for Digital Regulation and a pro-competition regime, to expanding R&D tax reliefs to cover cloud and data acquisition and investing in advanced computing resources. Which I guess is handy to have listed conveniently in one place.

The strategy then moves on to that golden oldie of digital strategies, digital skills. As the strategy points out, the digital skills gap comes with a huge cost in potential lost GDP — £63 billion — and that gap is expected to widen. Again, we get a recap of actions taken, including the Government’s focus on “rais[ing] the base level of skills of the next generations to enter the workforce”. No doubt this is a good idea, but 77,000 pupils taking Computer Science GCSE doesn’t feel like a game changer — that’s just 1.6% of the total number of GCSEs taken in 2021. At the basic digital skills end, “up to” 16,000 people participating in a skills bootcamp also feels underwhelming given the scale of the challenge, though £150 million additional funding will see this scaled up “significantly”.

The Data saves lives: reshaping health and social care with data strategy similarly reiterates commitments already made — unsurprisingly given a draft version was published last year to, encouragingly, solicit views and input. There’s much that’s positive, in particular the focus on improving data in adult social care, which remains largely analogue. As covered in the integration white paper, objectives include allowing users and their families to access information about their care, enabling “smoother” transitions between social care and a NHS services, and delivering digitised care records. There’s also lots in the strategy on the role of data in health-related innovation, with various commitments to support the development and use of high-quality, linked and secure data sets — something Reform has long called for.

On Wednesday, the Health Secretary spoke at the NHS ConfedExpo. You can read the full speech, but our verdict: Sajid Javid is right about the problems our health system faces and the need to “reinvent ourselves for the times we live in”, but his solutions feel reheated. A focus on prevention, the smart use of data and personalised care are all good, but they have all also been talking points for Javid’s predecessors. Given the pressures facing the Service, and the deteriorating state of the nation’s health, a bolder vision is needed.

A more interesting set of comments were made by NHS England’s medical director, Stephen Powis. Powis was refreshingly direct in addressing one of the drivers of our growing health crisis: drug overprescription. Unnecessary prescribing comes at a huge cost — to the tune of over £1 billion annually. More importantly, it can be a real danger to patients. It is estimated that one in five hospital admissions for over-65s are caused by adverse effects of medication. And as Powis points out, overprescription also feeds into a major cultural challenge for our health system — a belief that there is a “pill for every ill”. Managing expectations of what medicine can realistically deliver is a key challenge for policy makers so it’s great to hear such honesty from NHS England’s leadership.

Finally, some very positive news for renters on Thursday in the form of the Government’s white paper on delivering a “fairer, more secure and higher quality” private rented sector. Some highlights... First, confirmation that Section 21, so-called ‘no-fault’ evictions, will be abolished — this will be delivered in two stages. Second, the ‘Decent Homes’ standard, designed to ensure minumum standards in social housing, will be extended to privately rented homes. This is welcome news: currently, almost 1 in 4 homes in the private rented sector do not meet the standard, compared to 12% of social housing. There’s also an ambitious target to reduce the number of non-decent rented homes by 50% by 2030. Third, a new Ombudsman, which will have powers to compel landlords to compensate tenants, will be introduced. And fourth, it will be made illegal for landlords to have blanket bans on renting to families in receipt of benefits. All in all, a welcome set of practical policies, which ought to drive up standards and protect tenants in the private rented sector.

If you haven’t yet had your policy fill with all those government papers, here’s what else we’d recommend reading this weekend…

First up is Alice Thomson’s piece in The Times about Japan’s approach to obesity. It’s long been assumed that Japan’s healthy population and low rates of obesity are a cultural phenomena — thousands of years of a fishy, low-fat diet helped keep the pounds off. In fact, as recently as the 1960s, Japan had a serious weight problem with processed American food flooding the market. In response, the Japanese government made a concerted effort to change eating habits — healthy school lunches became free for all and action was taken to limit portion sizes and encourage adults to diet. Japan now ranks as the world’s healthiest nation with one of its lowest obesity rates. While we may not want to ape their more radically interventionist measures — fining companies with too high a proportion of obese employees or mandating diet classes is possibly a step too far — their approach clearly shows that a government action can have a very real impact on boosting the health of the nation. About that canned obesity strategy…

Secondly, new research out of King’s College London documents how working from home is changing London. Six in ten London workers are now hybrid working and three quarters of us think we’re never returning to our previous ways of working. However, while the hybrid working bug has clearly bitten many of us, a majority (57%) still feel positive about going into work, citing seeing colleagues, socialising, and separating work and life as key benefits. Survey respondents also feared that a move to working from home would be career limiting for young people — that’s a concern our Director raised in this piece last year. Working from home looks like it’s here to stay, the question now is how to strike the right balance between flexible working and realising the benefits that in-person working brings.