BLOG: Reflections on a year that will go down in history books

NHSA Chief Executive, Dr Séamus O’Neill, reflects on 2020 in his final blog of the year.

17th December 2020

In one sentence, how would you describe 2020? 

It’s not an experience I’d be keen to revisit but, as with all challenges, there’s an immense amount of learning and some good that can come out of it – there are key lessons to be learned around the importance of expertise, evidence, leadership and localism.  

What have been the biggest challenges of the year? 

It’s been incredibly hard to witness the devastating effect of the pandemic on the health of the people and the economy of the North of England.  

It has been similarly challenging to see the NHS have to deal with unprecedented levels of demandHowever, despite the immense pressure, frontline workers have responded to the pandemic with professionalism, ingenuity and compassion. This goes to the heart of what the NHS is and reinforces how central this institution is for the life of the country. 

From an NHSA perspective, dealing with the impact and stresses of the pandemic amongst the people we meet and interact with has also been challenging. But again, we have seen people and organisations rise to the challenge and adapt to new ways of working. This has enabled our collaborative activity and building of networks to develop and grow during a difficult year. 

What are the biggest achievements of 2020? 

First and foremost, we must acknowledge the resilience and adaptability within the health and life sciences sector that we have witnessed throughout 2020. The speed and scale at which innovation has been introduced and evaluated has been nothing short of phenomenal. 

From an NHSA perspective, I’m proud that we, along with our members, found a purpose within 2020’s challenging environment to develop the Northern health and life sciences cluster. We have brought together practitioners to good effect within our key areas of work such as mental healthdiagnostics and therapeutics, healthy ageing, health inequalities and data. 

From these networks of expert practitioners, who are all world-class in their fields, we developed a Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) proposal to government for investment in the North. The ambition of this proposal was to increase the capacity of our health and life sciences assets to anchor industry in the UK and develop the Northern economy. 

In addition, we have delivered important pieces of work over the year – such as the ‘COVID-19 and the Northern Powerhouse report and our work with UK government and overseas agencies to bring investment and transformative technologies into the North 

All of our activity adds to the North’s collective capability in health and life sciences. This sector is hugely important in building a brighter, healthier, more prosperous future for the people and the economy of the North. 

Going into the new year, how are you feeling about the state of the health and life sciences sector?  

How the country recovers its health and economic wellbeing after the pandemic remains uncertain. The further uncertainty about maintaining a robust health and life sciences sector in the UK post-Brexit is a real concern as well 

As set out in our CSR proposal, government investment in Northern excellence is essential to help anchor industry in the UK. The jobs and growth that would follow that investment are vital to both the economy and by extension to the health of the population. 

The opportunity for government to act in the CSR has not been grasped and there appears to be no clear strategy for levelling up. There has been a mountain of evidence published this year** all pointing to the same thing. We do not need more evidence, we need real action on levelling up. 

Similar calls for action have been made by leaders across the North following the publication of our ‘COVID-19 & the Northern Powerhouse’ report, including from the likes of Andy BurnhamDan JarvisHenri Murison and Sarah Longlands. 

If this is not a turning point in government policy and investment, it may well be a tipping point in terms of health, economic and social stability in the North. 

Despite the fact that we are entering 2021 with much uncertainty, we remain optimistic and determined to keep fighting for the North. 

What are the NHSA’s priorities for 2021? 

My view is we keep doing the right things well and continue to be unashamed advocates for the excellence in the North and its potential. We will keep working in partnership with our members, with government and with anyone else who can help us achieve our goals. 

The way in which we do this is important too. We’re now seeing the benefits of building a trusted environment for interaction across organisations, at scale in the North; and that’s what we’re all about. One conversation at a time, we will continue to build a healthy culture of collaboration across the North. So, when the call comes, and the Government decides to act and do the right thing in terms of levelling up, we will be ready and the North will respond with one clear and confident voice.


** COVID-19 and the Northern Powerhouse: Tackling Health Inequalities for UK Health and Productivity
Analysis of COVID19 ONS Data March to May 2020
Analysis of COVID19 ONS Data March 1 to April 17, 2020
IPPR North’s State of the North 2020/21: Power up, level up, rise up
Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review. The Pandemic, Socioeconomic and Health Inequalities in England. (London: Institute of Health Equity. Michael Marmot, Jessica Allen, Peter Goldblatt, Eleanor Herd, Joana Morrison (2020).)

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