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The Policy Ask with Charmaine Griffiths: “Governments place too much responsibility on individuals to live healthily”

The chief executive of the British Heart Foundation on reducing obesity and why we need an NHS workforce plan.

By Spotlight

Charmaine Griffiths is chief executive at the British Heart Foundation (BHF). Previously she has held leadership roles at the Institute of Cancer Research, the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, the London Cancer Hub and Brain Research UK. She is also chair of the Global Cardiovascular Research Funders Forum and the non-profit Cranfield Trust, and a board member of the European Heart Network. She is trained as a scientist and holds a PhD in neuroscience, so has a keen interest in how research and innovation can save and improve lives.

How do you start your working day?

Usually by 6am with a pot of tea, scanning news and focusing on the day’s priorities, followed by a walk or circuits class before the working day begins. I have the joy of working with so many different people, from colleagues to scientists, politicians to patients. No two days are the same, but every single one inspires me as we work to save and improve lives.

What has been your career high?

There have been so many. From publishing my first scientific paper to building a new Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery, or running campaigns that saved lives or changed law. I hope my career high is still to come – we’ve only just started to realise the full potential of the BHF, and I cannot wait to see how far we can go to save and improve more lives.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?  

I returned to the BHF as chief executive in February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic – the biggest challenge in our 62-year history. Within days we were closing 700 sites, taking care of our 24,000 colleagues and volunteers, supporting millions of patients, and protecting more than 1,100 research programmes, all while managing historic financial losses. It was the toughest experience in my career, but the most rewarding yet. Seeing colleagues rise to every challenge, supporting each other and constantly innovating is something I will never forget.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Just be yourself. I always had a love of science and a passion to help others, so I know I’ve made the right career choices. But I wish I knew earlier that being unapologetically clear about who you are and what you stand for as a leader would be so powerful. And actively seek out feedback. It can be hard to hear, but it’s vital for personal growth.

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Which political figure inspires you?  

As part of the Speakers for Schools initiative, I visited the inspirational students at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in north London, and so have gotten to learn more about Anderson’s history as a pioneering physician and political campaigner. Not only was she the first Englishwoman to qualify as a doctor, but she continues to inspire people today through her story.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?   

While obesity rates continue to rise, the risk of developing a heart or circulatory condition rises too. The 2018 soft drinks industry levy (SDIL) was a bold move showing that the government was serious about reversing this trend. The SDIL has already helped to reduce average weekly household consumption of sugar from soft drinks by 10 per cent and we’re starting to see a positive change to obesity levels in some groups of young people.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?   

Not so much a policy, but an approach. Successive governments have put too much responsibility on individuals to live healthily when things are set up to make this difficult for far too many people across the UK. Policies that make healthier choices easier can help so many families. If we can implement important policies like restrictions on junk food advertising, more people would have a fighting chance of good health.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?  

It’s frustrating that not enough is being done to address obesity, but I can see positive change elsewhere. It has been a privilege to work with little Dáithí Mac Gabhann and his family on “Dáithí’s Law”, campaigning for changes to organ donation legislation in Northern Ireland. Dáithí’s Law introduces a soft opt-out system, in line with the rest of the UK, which means that everyone would be considered a potential organ donor unless they opt-out or are in an exempted group. Now, Westminster has stepped in to help ensure that these changes will come into effect in Northern Ireland on 1 June 2023, and countless more lives could be saved.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from? 

The BHF is the UK’s largest independent funder of cardiovascular disease research, and it’s critical that our scientists operate within a thriving research and development sector. The government has rightly prioritised research and innovation, but we need ambitious long-term spending commitments to keep pace with other research-intensive countries such as Germany (3.2 per cent of GDP), and the US (3.1 per cent). Ensuring we remain ambitious in this space is a win-win – for economic productivity and for people to have access to world-leading healthcare.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?   

Currently 380,000 people are waiting for heart care – a rise of 63 per cent since February 2020, the month before the Covid-19 pandemic began. Whether a law or not, decisive government action is a must. I’ve heard from too many families who’ve been devastated by the avoidable death of a loved one. We need a new NHS workforce plan that addresses cardiac staff shortages, stronger emphasis on keeping people well in the first place, and more investment in research that will help to prevent, diagnose and cure cardiovascular disease for generations to come.

[See also: Keir Starmer knows his NHS plan will make life harder for a Labour government]

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