Today, the British Society for Immunology has had a letter published in The Times highlighting the importance of protecting the public health budget in the upcoming Government Spending Review to safeguard the current delivery and future potential of the UK’s immunisation programme. Here, BSI President, Professor Peter Openshaw, discusses the importance of the immunisation programme to UK health and why we feel the need to act.
In July, the Government published guidance on the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) – a process in which public spending is defined over the course of the next parliament – in a document entitled ‘A country that lives within its means‘. The header gives you an idea of the Treasury’s aim with this review: they want tight fiscal discipline, or in other words, significant reductions in public spending to help eliminate Britain’s financial deficit.
As a means to this end, the document invites unprotected government budgets – which includes areas of spending that define how much money is distributed to life sciences research through the research councils – to model cuts to their budgets of between 25% and 40%. Any reduction in science spending and money available to support the research carried out by our members would be disastrous. That’s why the BSI has made representations to the Government through the Science and Technology Committee, where in our written submission we argue for a much needed programme of investment in the science budget.
Vaccines are a critical public health tool
However, another important issue is that of vaccines. Vaccines have made an immeasurable contribution to the health of our nation and the UK has a long and proud history in supporting their development through the roll-out of new immunisation programmes. Just recently for example we have seen the implementation of a new programme, the first of its kind in the world, to vaccinate infants against meningitis B, a dangerous and devastating infectious disease. Vaccines are among the most cost-effective measures that we have to improve public health.
The UK is a world leader in the way it develops, expands and improves its immunisation programmes. Any threat to our excellent current programmes and to the introduction of new vaccines has to be resisted. This summer the Government announced cuts to the public health budget of £200 million, and more is expected from the Spending Review. Although vaccination schedules are delivered by the NHS (a protected budget), the delivery of these programmes relies on invaluable support from public health funds. This support includes the procurement and distribution of vaccines, providing expert advice and clinical guidance to shape future delivery, and performing the analysis and surveillance that’s so important to the evaluation of existing and future programmes, and indeed in assessing any putative links between vaccination and adverse events.
Moreover, public health bodies have responsibility for delivering national communications, including information leaflets, factsheets and other patient resources. This is a critical task which assumes even greater importance at a time when the UK is failing to reach the minimum World Health Organization designated targets for vaccination coverage across a number of routine immunisation schedules, as the latest data published by the Government showed just last week.
Sending out our message
We have expressed these concerns in a letter to the Chancellor submitted to the Treasury, with a shorter version published today in The Times (see below). Our message is clear: failure to safeguard and build upon the existing platform, through both life sciences and public health spending, seriously compromises our ability to protect the public from infectious disease.
It would be easy to characterise the spending review as a simple stock-check of public expenses, a way of the Treasury achieving further fiscal consolidation and an opportunity to reign in departmental spending. In reality, it’s much more important: by defining central budgets for the next five years, the Government is in fact sending out a strong message as to where its strategic priorities lie.
The BSI believes that preserving the health of the nation and building upon our world-leading immunisation programmes should be foremost amongst these priorities. That is why in our letter we urge the Chancellor to protect spending in public health and the life sciences, not only to safeguard the current platform but to support the future roll-out of new vaccine programmes.
We hope that the Government takes heed of these concerns and uses this spending review as an opportunity to make a bold statement on its commitment to science, public health and immunisation when the outcome of the review is announced in November.
Peter Openshaw, President, British Society for Immunology
Letter published in The Times, 3 October 2015
Sir, Our national immunisation programme is considered one of the best in the world. As immunologists, however, we are concerned that cuts to the life science and public health budgets may jeopardise this status. NHS spending is of course protected, but public health forms a critical role in supporting the planning and implementation of immunisation programmes: the recent example of ebola shows the need for commitment to advance and sustain the development of new vaccines.
Although we understand that savings must be made in the national budget, failure to safeguard and build upon the current platform is counterproductive and would seriously compromise our ability to protect communities from infectious disease.
The spending review is a chance for the government to underline its commitment to science, public health, and immunisation. Public health is a vital pillar in supporting the implementation of these programmes by the NHS. So too is the public funding that supports cross-disciplinary research, which is vital investment for the UK and for the patients of today and tomorrow.
Professor Peter Openshaw, President, British Society for Immunology