By Szu Ping Chan 21 November 2022 • 6:07pm
Rishi Sunak has urged the NHS to embrace the use of robots as the health service prepares to cut its workforce by half in a drastic attempt to cut costs.
The Prime Minister said supporting innovation was a “defining focus” of his premiership, as he described more automation and investment in robotics as “low hanging fruit” that will drive up pay and economic growth “quickly”.
“If we can get that right with more robotics and automation, then we can drive up productivity. It reduces some of the pressure on labour, and creates good jobs for people,” he told an audience of business leaders in Birmingham.
It came as Mr Sunak pledged to “radically innovate” Britain’s health service with new technologies in a “bold” move that would challenge “conventional wisdom” in healthcare reform.
Ministers are drawing up plans to slash NHS England’s 6,500 bureaucrats by as much as half and to remove a swathe of targets to allow hospitals more control over how money is spent.
Mr Sunak told the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference that “better care requires innovation” in drugs and new technologies.
The Prime Minister also ruled out closer trade ties with the European Union if it means following diktats from Brussels, but signalled that the Government would open the door to more highly skilled migrants to boost the economy.
In the clearest indication yet that the UK will not seek a Swiss-style deal that relies on following European rules, the Prime Minister said regulatory freedom was one of the biggest benefits of leaving the bloc.
“Let me be unequivocal about this,” he said. “Under my leadership, I will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws.”
Mr Sunak also said that Brexit had enabled “proper control of our borders”, vowing to tackle illegal immigration and “give the British people trust and confidence that the system works and is fair.”
He said: “I voted for Brexit. I believe in Brexit and I know that Brexit can deliver, and is already delivering, enormous benefits and opportunities for the country. Migration being an immediate one, where we have proper control of our borders and are able to have a conversation with our country about the type of migration that we want and need.”
The Government is relying on a surge in net migration to help drive growth as innovation slows. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicted net migration would settle at 205,000 a year from 2026 onwards.
This is significantly higher than the Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s long-term goal to reduce net migration to below 100,000.
Growing NHS waiting lists have left a record 2.5m people unable to work because of long-term sickness, with an extra 133,000 people falling out of the workforce for health reasons in the three months to September alone.
The Prime Minister also said it was important that UK rules governing financial services and trade were “fit for the future”. He added: “Having the regulatory freedom to do that is an important opportunity of Brexit.”
Andy Briggs, chief executive of insurance giant Phoenix Group, which owns Standard Life, said EU red tape has contributed to an investment deficit in the UK.
He said: “Pension saving in the UK is the second largest in the world at £3.4 trillion. But only 7pc is invested in [UK] productive assets. The average for the seven largest nations globally is 19pc.”
Mr Briggs said the Government’s decision to depart from EU rules governing insurers would free up to £50bn of capital to invest in the UK economy. “The regulations were getting in the way of that, and those regulations are being changed,” he said.
Mr Sunak also noted that the UK was in discussions about joining a global trade pact with some of the world’s biggest economies, including Canada and Japan. He described the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which was signed in 2018, as a “fantastic opportunity for the UK.”