The NHS is not giving enough priority to diabetes

Astonishingly, this isn't about a lack of money.

As someone who has run NHS bodies and been an NHS groupie for more years than I care to think about, I wept with joy at the tribute to our health service in Danny Boyle’s breathtaking opening ceremony for the London Olympic Games. For me, those that work tirelessly for our health services are an even greater pride to Britain than our amazing athletes.

But as brilliant as those working in the NHS undoubtedly are, the sad fact is that as an institution it is failing when it comes to diabetes healthcare. Diabetes is one of the greatest health challenges we face but its rise seems to be inexorable and the seriousness with which it is tackled simply doesn’t match the seriousness of the condition and its complications.

There are now 3.7m people with diabetes in the UK and 7m at high risk and the fact that rates of devastating diabetes complications such as kidney failure and stroke are now at record levels is one of the reasons that 24,000 people with diabetes die early every year. To put it simply, diabetes is big a big, growing and serious problem to which insufficient priority is being given. 

The astounding thing is that it is not about money. How often are these words heard? Not often. The NHS already spends 10 per cent of its annual budget on diabetes – that £10bn is more than the total amount of money spent on the London Olympics over the last seven years. For this kind of investment, you would expect Jessica Ennis-esque levels of healthcare performance but much diabetes spending is going on the wrong things.

About 80 per cent of NHS spending on diabetes goes on treating the devastating diabetes complications, such as blindness, amputations and kidney disease, the vast majority of which are basically avoidable, while not enough is being done to prevent complications from occurring in the first place. For example, less than half of the people who should have been screened for diabetes under the NHS Vascular healthcheck have been. 

Risk assessment and early diagnosis are key to giving people treatment as early as possible that can help prevent complications developing or help them avoid developing diabetes if they are at high risk. Barely half of people with diabetes are getting the basic checks they need to manage their condition. Fixing both of these things could save the NHS Olympic scale cash through fewer hospital admissions and less complex treatments. It would also ensure that those with diabetes have a better quality of life and in many cases mean the difference between life and death.

As the London Olympics comes to a close I hope one of the lasting legacies of these games will be greater participation in sport and physical activity. Not only would this lead to better health and well-being for people across the country, but could also play a crucial role in reducing risk of Type 2 diabetes.  But if the growing problem of diabetes is to be truly tackled – and the ticking time bomb at the heart of the NHS defused – then we need the NHS and Government to declare and make diabetes a priority in the way that as a nation we prioritised the effective delivery of a wonderful Games. 

Barbara Young is chief executive of Diabetes UK


Barbara Young is chief executive of Diabetes UK.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.