LSE–Lancet Commission on the future of the NHS: re-laying the foundations for an equitable and efficient health and care service after COVID-19

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Executive summary

The UK’s response to the pandemic

The UK has recorded one of the highest death rates associated with COVID-19 globally, whether measured as deaths that are directly attributable to COVID-19 or by excess mortality. The reasons for this high rate are complex and not yet fully understood, but elements of the UK Government response have been criticised, including delayed implementation of physical distancing measures, poor coordination with local authorities and public health teams, a dysfunctional track and trace system, and an absence of consultation with devolved nations. The role of the National Health Service (NHS) and relevant national executive agencies in relation to testing capacity, availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), the cancellation and postponement of many aspects of routine care, and decisions around discharge from hospital to care homes should also be critically examined. Conversely, aspects of the response by the NHS and relevant national executive agencies deserve recognition. In only a few weeks, capacity for critical care was massively expanded, many thousands of staff were reallocated, and services were reorganised to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2. The NHS also collaborated with academic institutions to share knowledge about clinical characteristics of the disease and to establish world-leading clinical trials on vaccines and treatments.

The response to COVID-19 brings to attention some of the chronic weaknesses and strengths of the UK’s health and care systems and real challenges in society to health. Failures in leadership, an absence of transparency, poor integration between the NHS and social care, chronic underfunding of social care, a fragmented and disempowered public health service, ongoing staffing shortfalls, and challenges in getting data to flow in real time were all important barriers to coordinating a comprehensive and effective response to the pandemic. More positively, the high amount of financial protection that was provided by the NHS and an allocation of resources that explicitly accounted for differing geographical needs have, to some extent, mitigated the already substantial effect of the pandemic on health inequalities.

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