Women's Health Strategy priorities: Secretary of State speech
The Health and Social Care Secretary, Victoria Atkins, spoke at the Woman's Health Summit to update on the Women's Health Strategy 2024 priorities
Thank you so very much everyone.
Can I just say, I’ve been looking forward to today.
Because, apologies gents, but I view this as a sort of feminist’s Christmas.
So, it is a genuine pleasure to be here with you all. I know there are incredible leaders here in what we are trying to achieve in women’s health.
There are women in this room who are midwives, nurses, doctors, healthcare professionals, and leaders.
There are women who do amazing work through charities.
There are women who campaign on issues.
And, of course, there are women here who have told their stories, in public, so that others know that they are not alone.
And to all of you, I say thank you.
You are making our NHS a better service for us all.
And I also want to promise you that I get it.
Because women’s health and maternity care is one of my top priorities as Health Secretary.
Because we are more than half the population, and our healthcare matters. Not just to us as individuals, but to our families and wider society.
Now, as Maria rightly said, we have already come a long way, and transformed many lives by driving forward the Women’s Health Strategy we launched some 18 months ago.
But together, we can go further still.
I want to reform our NHS and care system to make it faster, simpler, and fairer for all of us – and that includes women.
Because for me this is personal.
The NHS diagnosed me with type one diabetes at the age of three.
So, I have seen the very best of the NHS.
But I have also seen some of its darker corners.
One of those darker corners was when I was pregnant.
As the clinicians in the room will understand, pregnancy with type one diabetes can be a very medicalised process. And there came a point in the pregnancy when it became clear that the baby was going to have to be delivered early.
And so, I was rushed into hospital – and the hospital that looked after me amazingly well simply did not, at that point, have the facilities to look after someone who was both very early in pregnancy, but also with complications.
And so they put me in a ward with women who had just given birth – literally rushed from theatre – who had had very traumatic experiences.
And you will understand how deeply worrying - and dare I say it, frightening – it was to be lying in that ward with women who had gone through, frankly, a hellish experience. Who were in agony, who were needing very urgent medical treatment.
And for me to be there ready to have my baby.
Looking back, I know that everybody was doing their best.
But I desperately want to ensure that women who are expecting, and who find themselves needing a bit of extra help are not in that situation, and they’re not facing the fear that I faced.
So, I absolutely get it.
And it is very much personal for me.
But I want to set out some of the policies this year that will help light the way to better health and happiness for women.
And I’m going to start with a number.
From the independent research published last week, that is the number of women who died in pregnancy or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy in the three years between 2020 and 2022.
That number means that 293 families are grieving the profound loss of a mother – who will also be someone’s daughter, partner, wife, sister, or friend.
And their babies who have lived – their loss is indescribable.
They will never know the warmth of their mother’s cuddle.
The tinkle of her laughter.
Or the limitless love that we have for our children.
Not all of these deaths are linked to poor maternity care, but many will be.
And this must stop.
Important, and frankly stark, reviews into maternity services have identified how, why and where mistakes happen and harm is done.
And in response, NHS England has set out a large programme of work to tackle this through its maternity and neonatal services plan.
This includes the establishment of fourteen Maternal Medicine Networks across England. Which will ensure that women with medical conditions that pre-date, or develop during pregnancy, from cardiac disease to diabetes, all receive the specialist care they need.
Fairer access to services must be achieved, and underperforming trusts must shape up.
To achieve this, a Maternity Safety Support Programme is giving underperforming trusts assistance before serious safety issues arise.
And I will give these and other measures my full backing to support families, and to end preventable maternal and baby deaths.
Because the birth of a child should be among the happiest moments of our lives.
And for the overwhelming majority of families, of course – it is.
We want this for every woman, and every family.
But this commitment also requires a laser-like focus on birth trauma.
Some mums endure simply unacceptable care and live with the consequences of that trauma for the rest of their lives.
Some have told their stories to the media – harrowing experiences of tears, prolapses, operations and agony.
They’ve done this because they want to shine a light on the impact of such experiences.
Some of those amazing mums are here today in the audience.
You deserve our thanks, our admiration, and our applause.
And the importance of women speaking up for other women is demonstrated through the work of my colleague Theo Clarke, the Member of Parliament for Stafford.
Theo suffered a horribly traumatic birth. And when she regained her strength, and returned to work, she called a debate in the House of Commons on birth trauma.
This was the first debate on birth trauma in the centuries that we have had a Parliament, and this shows some of the journey we still have to travel.
And when you spoke, Theo, women around the country heard you and responded - sharing their stories too.
Theo is now leading an inquiry into birth trauma on behalf of Parliament, with the backing of the Birth Trauma Association, and I encourage any mother who has been through a traumatic birth to share their story with this inquiry.
But I am impatient, and I want to see progress quickly.
We recognise that pregnancy and birth can take an enormous mental and emotional toll, particularly if a woman has to deal with physical illness too.
This was demonstrated in the case of a young woman who passed away when extreme pregnancy sickness left her unable to eat, drink, or complete daily tasks.
Thanks to the advocacy of her Member of Parliament, Sara Britcliffe, and others, specialist maternal mental health services will be available to women in every part of England by March.
So, thank you Sara, and thank you to all the women who have campaigned for that.
And we want to take care of the physical injuries caused in traumatic childbirths, which is why we are rolling out comprehensive physical care for those who experience serious tears during childbirth by March as well.
But sometimes, a simple and thoughtful question is what is needed.
“Are you ok, Mum?”
This year, every woman who gives birth will be offered a comprehensive check up with their GP within eight weeks, focused solely on her mental and physical health – in other words, asking her whether she’s ok.
Now, the baby girls born to these amazing women in our NHS will of course grow up into young women.
For most girls and women, starting our periods is a part of life.
It’s an extra thing we have to think about. It’s annoying at times, it’s sometimes painful, but it isn’t life-impacting.
For some girls and women, however, their periods are a time of severe pain and exhaustion which they come to dread because of the impact it has on their lives.
Painful periods and conditions such as endometriosis can stop girls and women from living their lives to the full – preventing them from going to school or to work, playing sport, from meeting their friends, or even starting a family.
We are going to hear from Emma Cox later about her work to educate us all about endometriosis.
But she and I have already met, when in my previous role, I was Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
Now. in that role, I was responsible for the UK’s tax system. And it tended to involve rather dry discussions about the interpretation of tax law.
So, after I’d settled in, I decided to bring a little more human into the Treasury - which is a very imposing institution.
And it turns out that the Treasury can do human.
Because last year, at the two fiscal events, the Chancellor announced the removal of VAT on period pants.
And also asked the Office of National Statistics to investigate the impact of endometriosis on women’s employment, so that we can find solutions to ensure that we are helping them to live to their full potential.
This is a groundbreaking piece of work and is part of the government’s commitment to ensuring women can lead full and fulfilling careers.
And to mark that announcement, I invited Emma and women living with endometriosis into Number 11 Downing Street, so their voices were heard at the very centre of government.
A few months later as Health Secretary, I am proud that we will build better guidance on endometriosis for healthcare professionals, so they can offer women the right treatment at the right time.
But periods and pregnancy go together.
We should also be able to control when and if we fall pregnant.
We have therefore made contraception more accessible through our Pharmacy First programme.
From December, oral contraception is now available on more high streets, using our pharmacists to their full potential – making it faster, simpler, and fairer for women to access this healthcare.
We will also roll out long lasting contraception through Women’s Health Hubs - which brings me onto our next priority.
We will expand Women’s Health Hubs so that every Integrated Care System has at least one Hub up and running.
So that women across England will be able to benefit from faster, simpler, and fairer comprehensive care for menstrual problems, menopause, conditions such as endometriosis and contraception.
We will also make sure hubs provide care that meets more women’s needs.
Whether that’s making it quicker, and easier to access long-acting reversible contraception, like coils and implants.
Or setting up information sessions and consultations to help women understand their menopause.
Or facilitating smooth and speedy referrals to specialist hospital treatment whenever it’s needed.
Women’s health hubs benefit women, and they benefit our NHS.
They boost efficiency, they reduce unnecessary hospital referrals, and they end the obstacle course of appointments women face to find the care they need.
This is why we support them, and this is why we are expanding them.
I have already said that I want to reform our NHS and social care system to be faster, simpler, and fairer.
And that point about fairness is shown shockingly in maternity.
Black women are almost three times more likely to die while giving birth, or shortly after, than white women.
Women of Asian ethnic backgrounds are 1.67 times more likely to die while giving birth, or shortly after, than white women.
In modern Britain, this is absolutely unacceptable.
And I want to thank the Women and Equalities Select Committee for carrying out an inquiry and amplifying this issue.
We are serious about ending maternity disparities.
And I have confidence that we will do this.
Not only because of the intensive work in the NHS that I have set out, but also because of our unique status on the international stage.
The world is on the cusp of a healthcare revolution.
Researchers are discovering answers to the largest and most intractable healthcare issues facing all developed economies.
The UK is at the front of this race.
We are genuinely a world-leader in life sciences.
We have the largest life sciences industry in Europe, and businesses around the world are moving to the UK because of the tax and investment regimes we have built over the last decade to encourage them.
And I am delighted to welcome pioneers in femtech here today.
But we want to go further and faster.
So, I am delighted to announce the launch of the first ever Research Challenge, worth £50 million to tackle maternity disparities from the National Institute of Health and Care Research, the research arm of the Department for Health.
This spring, the call will go out to research teams for their ideas.
By autumn, they will be innovating together, finding ways to give mums a helping hand before, during, and after pregnancy.
And I am hugely optimistic about what this can achieve. And this is just one of the projects we are funding to improve women’s health.
Recently, I met two inspiring women who have been diagnosed with an aggressive and very difficult to diagnose form of breast cancer.
Lobular breast cancer accounts for 15% of breast cancers, yet far more research is needed into its symptoms and treatments.
Thanks to their campaigning, and the support of their MPs Jeremy Quin and Dehenna Davison, we will encourage more research into lobular breast cancer and other under-researched women’s health issues. As well as conditions that affect women and men differently, such as heart attacks.
So that the symptoms we suffer from are recognised as symptoms that are perhaps different to the symptoms men would suffer from.
It is precisely because we have such an established system of healthcare and research, with committed workforces and plans for how to meet these challenges, that I am confident about the future.
We are making long-term decisions to support, strengthen, and safeguard the health and wellbeing of women up and down the country.
And my Ministerial colleague and friend, Maria, has done so much to bring about real change for women. From new women’s health hubs to HRT for less than £20 a year.
She does this whilst still practising as a nurse.
So, an enormous thank you to Maria.
Thank you for everything you do as a Member of Parliament, and as a Minister, and as a nurse.
But there is another woman I would like to thank as well, our Women’s Health Ambassador, Dame Lesley Regan.
I know Dame Lesley is raring to do even more than she has already achieved.
And so, I am very pleased to confirm that we are reappointing Dame Lesley as our Women’s Health Ambassador for another two years.
Thank you, Dame Lesley.
So, this is our five-point plan for women’s health.
Maternity care that every mother can have faith in.
Better care for menstrual problems.
More women’s health hubs offering more treatments.
Improving fairness and tackling inequalities and disparities.
And more research into the health needs of women.
In my very first speech as Health and Social Care Secretary, I said I was an optimist.
And I remain an optimist.
I’m optimistic about Britain’s long-term future, I’m optimistic about our NHS, and I’m optimistic about what the Women’s Health Strategy can achieve in 2024.
By working together, we can build an NHS that is faster, simpler, and fairer for women across the country.
And build a future that is brighter for our children and grandchildren.
I want to thank you all for helping us achieve this – thank you very much.