What does a Labour government mean for cancer prevention and public health?

Keir starmer campaigning

With the General Election resulting in a definitive win for the Labour party, Jennifer O’Mara, our Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer, looks at what the new government should aim to achieve to tackle cancer in the UK.

Picture credit: Keir Starmer, Leader of the Labour Party, and Chris Bloore, Labour’s candidate for Redditch, speak with activists at Willow Tree Community Centre, whilst in Worcestershire on the final day of election campaigning. Picture date: Wednesday July 03, 2024 (Photo sourced from from flickr keir.starmer.mp: General Election campaigning, West Midlands, United Kingdom – 03 July 2024, Attribution-Noncommercial-Noderivs 2.0 Generic)

In the run-up to the General Election, we launched our Policy priorities to prevent cancer – a to-do list for the incoming government to improve cancer prevention across the country, as well as better support people living with and beyond cancer.

 

We focused on 5 areas

  1. Prioritise cancer prevention across government
  2. Improve the nation’s diet
  3. Get everyone moving more
  4. Reduce the nation’s alcohol consumption
  5. Increase support and resources for patients, health professionals, and research

Looking at their manifesto commitments, what can we expect from the new Labour government?

Prioritise cancer prevention across government

While Labour has acknowledged the importance of prevention, we need a ring-fenced funded cancer strategy with a strong focus on prevention. We will continue to advocate for a new cancer strategy as we believe this will concentrate efforts to prioritise cancer across government.

It’s great to see Labour’s commitment to tackling the social determinants of health and halving the gap in healthy life expectancy between the richest and poorest regions in England. However, the manifesto lacks detail on how that will be achieved. We also note that any action to remove the 2-child benefit – which would raise 250,000 children out of poverty – is contingent on when “fiscal conditions allow”.

We welcome Labour’s commitment to shifting the focus of the health system towards prevention to tackle the biggest killers and reduce the number of lives lost to cancer and other non-communicable diseases. However, we need to understand these plans in more detail.

Improve the nation’s diet

Obesity will overtake smoking as the number 1 risk factor for cancer if we don’t act.

Banning the advertising of unhealthy food before 9pm is a Labour commitment. This policy could reduce the number of children living with obesity by around 20,000 and significantly improve the health of children in Britain. However, if the remaining legislative processes are not acted on by September 2024, the policy is imperilled and may have to go back to the drawing board.

We also welcome Labour’s commitment to develop an ambitious strategy to reduce child poverty by delivering free breakfast clubs in every primary school in England, funded through the ending of non-domiciled tax status. Regularly missing breakfast makes it more challenging to support healthy growth and development, and cognitive function, in children.

However, while free breakfasts would be great, free school meals for all primary and secondary schools would be even better. Every £1 invested in children receiving universal credit returns £1.38 in benefits, further aiding improved educational and health outcomes. We will highlight this important return on investment to the new government.

Labour have also committed to:

  • ban the sale of high-caffeinated drinks to under-16s
  • reduce food prices
  • restrict fast food outlets outside schools

However, a step further forward would be to invest revenue raised by the Soft Drinks Industry Levy to improve children’s health. We would also like the Levy expanded to other products.

Another missing commitment is to make sure all food has a robust mandatory front of pack label – it will be interesting to see if the new government picks up where the outgoing government left off. The previous government consulted on this policy in 2020.

Get everyone moving more

We welcome Labour’s commitment to protect time for physical education in schools and expand access to sport. The party has also pledged to improve green transport and update the national planning system to meet the needs of the modern economy. This is a really positive commitment as green transport not only makes our cities healthier but our population too. However, the key will be in the detail.

There are still gaps in Labour’s commitments, particularly in primary healthcare. Our evidence shows that when doctors and nurses are trained in the benefits of physical activity, and when doctors prescribe physical activity to patients, rates increase and non-communicable diseases – not just cancer but heart disease and diabetes too – decline.

Reduce the nation’s alcohol consumption

Alcohol is notably absent from Labour’s manifesto and should be urgently prioritised, starting with an independent review to develop a national alcohol strategy, which could feature measures such as mandatory labels to make consumers aware of the health risks, a minimum price for a unit of alcohol, and alcohol duty in line with inflation.

Increase support and resources for patients, health professionals, and research

Labour has committed to an additional £1.1bn in NHS funding to cut waiting times, empower patients with information and modernise the NHS. We hope that cancer patients will be high priorities when new resources are deployed.

Labour have also committed to set out a new industrial strategy which includes the life sciences sector among others. We will have to await more information to see how the research sector will feature and whether any funding will be allocated to support the strategy.

But Labour could go further. We would like to see:

  • nutrition and physical activity advice included along the cancer treatment pathway
  • specific questions on nutrition and physical activity in the National Cancer Patient Experience Survey
  • a long-term cabinet-led science strategy that prioritises cancer prevention

What’s the prognosis for public health and cancer prevention?

We anticipate that this new government will implement some positive measures, from addressing health inequalities to enforcing marketing restrictions. However, there are many gaps in the detail – we need to understand how the new government will approach their commitments.

We will also press for more action in certain areas – especially alcohol. There is an opportunity for this government to do much more and we intend to pressure our leaders to deliver change.