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Artificial intelligence labs, immigration and NHS funding: what do the latest Government announcements mean for cancer?

by Rose Gray | Analysis

13 August 2019

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It’s been a busy few weeks for the new Government, with several announcements from the Prime Minister featuring science and the NHS. This included £1.8 billion for the NHS to spend on buildings and kit, a new national artificial intelligence lab and a change to immigration rules for the ‘world’s best scientists’.

Here’s what the string of Government commitments could mean for cancer.

Repairs, rebuilds and kit – where is the money going?

First up, the Prime Minister announced £1.8 billion for the NHS in “capital spend”, meaning it will be used to upgrade facilities and equipment.

There’s been some debate about whether this can be called “new money”, as technically, some of it was money that hospitals already had, but couldn’t spend. But whether it’s new or not, it will make a big difference for the many hospitals that urgently need repairs.

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, said this is ‘just the start’ of the Government’s plans for improving the state of NHS buildings and kit. And it’s a promising sign for cancer: more capital funding could help improve the machines used to diagnose and monitor cancer, like CT scanners, and could also help make sure the NHS has the most up-to-date radiotherapy kit.

But while this will go some way to addressing the immense strain the NHS is under, it won’t fix NHS staffing shortages – and this is our top priority.

Future tech for a future NHS

Next, the Government turned their attention to a new £250 million national artificial intelligence (AI) laboratory.

AI covers technology that can perform tasks that otherwise would be done by humans. It could have a big role to play in healthcare in the future, for example by checking scans taken during breast screening, or predicting future demand in hospitals.

One of the reasons AI is so exciting is that it could be used to automate some of the more basic hospital tasks, giving NHS staff more time to spend with patients. And with growing NHS staff shortages, any technology that can help ease the strain is extremely welcome.

New AI tech is being developed all the time, but the NHS doesn’t have a clear idea of how it could be used in practice. That’s where the new National AI Laboratory comes in, testing if and how the new tech can be used in the NHS.

The Secretary of State also announced that up to 5 million people in the UK would get a ‘free personalised health report’, based on their DNA. It’s part of a research project exploring if it’s possible to identify people at higher risk of developing certain diseases – including cancer – and then help them to reduce their risk.

The idea and funding to read the DNA of 5 million healthy people was originally announced in December 2018, but the focus on preventing disease using genome analysis is new. It’s an exciting prospect, but it will be a while before it could benefit patients.

World-leading science needs global talent

Rounding off the week, the Prime Minister announced his intent to change immigration rules for the ‘world’s top scientists’ with plans to remove the current cap on the number allowed to enter each year on a ‘Tier 1’ visa, which is the visa for ‘exceptional’ scientists.

Brexit has created some uncertainty for the future of UK science, so this is a step in the right direction – but there’s still much more to do to make sure science is protected after the UK leaves the EU.

It’s vital that scientists at all career levels can work in the UK, and that researchers based in the UK can collaborate easily with their international counterparts. We’ll be working behind the scenes to influence Government and the EU in the next few months, so that we can continue to make progress in the global fight against cancer.

Good news on the Horizon 2020

And in the final announcement of the week, the Government recommitted to protecting scientists who currently have EU funding – for example, through the Horizon 2020 Programme – if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.

In practice, this means the Government will step in to cover any funding that is lost because of a no-deal Brexit, and will evaluate any new research bids that are underway at the time, so the projects might get funding from the UK instead of the EU.

The announcement will be reassuring news for the scientists in the UK who rely on this funding – although many will hope it never comes to that. Many scientists and science funders have raised their concerns about what a no-deal Brexit could mean for science, something we blogged about last year.

And while this is a helpful short-term fix, it won’t be enough to safeguard UK science if we leave the EU without a deal.

What’s next for the NHS?

The last few weeks have seen some encouraging announcements from the new Government, but there’s much more to do. And as our chief executive writes, diagnosing cancer early should be at the top of their list.

Early diagnosis is something both the Government and the NHS already recognise as important – there’s an ambition to diagnose 3 in 4 patients at an early stage by 2028 in NHS England’s long term plan. And if this target is met, thousands more lives could be saved.

It’s a fantastic goal, but the unfortunate reality is that right now there aren’t enough NHS staff to make it happen.

That’s why ahead of the next month’s spending review, where the UK Government decide where to its spend money over the next year, we’re campaigning for a new cancer workforce plan to make sure the NHS has the staff it so desperately needs, now and in the future.

> Join us and ask the new Prime Minister to make beating cancer a priority.

Rose Gray is a policy manager at Cancer Research UK