Chancellor Rishi Sunak has confirmed £2.1billion for NHS IT upgrades and digital health technology in today’s budget.
The funding will cover “innovative use of digital technology so hospitals and other care organisations are as connected and efficient as possible”.
It is hoped the boost will improve efficiencies within the NHS to free up staff time to spend caring for patients.
Announcing the 2021 budget in the House of Commons today (October 27), Sunak said it was about “levelling up” the economy for an “age of optimism”.
“Today’s budget does not draw a line under Covid, we have challenging months ahead… but today’s budget does begin the work of preparing for a stronger economy post-Covid,” he said.
Sunak added the economy will be “fit for a new age of optimism – where the only limit to our potential is the effort we are prepared to put in and the sacrifices we are prepared to make”.
Specifically on healthcare funding, the budget confirmed a £44billion increase in health and care spending, taking total spending in the sector to £177billion, the largest since 2010 according to Sunak.
The chancellor referred to previous pledges including the 40 new hospitals programme, better newborn screening and more than 70 hospital upgrades as proof of commitment to the NHS.
— HM Treasury (@hmtreasury) October 27, 2021
The NHS IT funding forms part of a wider £5.9billion capital funding to help the NHS clear the record high backlog of patient’s waiting for treatment, invest in new equipment such as MRIs and CT machines, and invest in IT upgrades such as faster broadband.
The £5.9bn will be used to fund physical infrastructure and equipment, but not day-to-day spending.
Some £2.3bn is to be spent on more diagnostic tests including CTs, MRIs and ultrasounds. A further £1.5bn is set to be spent on more beds and equipment, including new surgical hubs.
The Department of Health has also received £5bn over the next three years to fund research and development, including in areas such as genome sequencing and reducing health inequalities.
Sunak said the funding would be put towards “cementing our status as a science and technology superpower”. This includes £95 million for the Office for Life Sciences for delivery of the government’s Life Sciences Vision, and a commitment to ‘diverse data’ to increase representation of minority groups in genomic research.
A joint programme between NHSX and the Health Foundation is already looking at using artificial intelligence (AI) to reduce health inequalities, with £1.4m announced as part of the programme earlier this month.
The NHS is currently facing an unprecedented backlog of 5.4 million patients, with a further 6 million expected to be added to that list while the health service grapples with recovering from the pandemic.
Hundreds of thousands of those patients are waiting more than a year for treatment.
Analysis from the Health Foundation in September estimated the cost of clearing the backlog in NHS care by the end of this parliament (2024/25) to be up to £16.8billion.
That would cover clearing the backlog of patient’s waiting for routine elective care, returning to hospital wait times of 18 weeks and treatment for millions of patients who didn’t receive care during the pandemic.
The financial recovery goes further than a lack of staff and resources, infection control to manage Covid-19 cases also puts significant strains on NHS services.
Anita Charlesworth, the Health Foundation’s director of research and REAL Centre, said at the time: “Enhanced infection control means the NHS can’t provide as much care as normal with the people and buildings it has. If heightened infection control measures are here to stay, the NHS will also need extra funding to fill the gap.
“Managing the costs of Covid-19 could be as much as tackling the waiting list backlog. The government must resist the temptation to pick and mix funding for Covid-19 and for the backlog – patients need both.”
Build Back Better
The funding announced in today’s budget is on top of the £36bn announced in September for frontline services over the next three years.
That money, which equates to £12bn a year, will be raised through a 1.25% rise in National Insurance which kicks in from April 2022. The bulk of that funding focused on reforming health and care in England.
It includes a £250m fund to boost technology in operating theatres and a further £250m to increase operating theatre capacity and improve productivity in hospitals.
The elective recovery technology fund aims to provide access to “cutting edge technologies” according to the governments Build Back Better plan.