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Labour’s mission will be to bring down suicide rates, Sir Keir Starmer pledges in NHS reform plans

Labour’s mission “must be and will be” to reverse the rising number of deaths from suicide, Sir Keir Starmer will pledge on Monday as he sets out his party’s vision for transforming the NHS.

The opposition leader is due to give a speech in the east of England in which he will outline his vision for modernising the health service and announce ambitious targets for the next Labour government. Sir Keir will commit to tackling the biggest killers and bring NHS waiting times back to safe levels.

He will say: “Suicide is the biggest killer of young lives in this country. The biggest killer. That statistic should haunt us. And the rate is going up. Our mission must be and will be: to get it down.”

Coroners’ statistics published earlier this month revealed that 2022 saw the highest number of suicides recorded in England and Wales. Labour’s pledge will be for suicide rates to start declining within five years.

In 2021, there were 5,583 suicides registered in England and Wales, equivalent to a rate of 10.7 deaths per 100,000 people. While this was statistically significantly higher than the 2020 rate of 10.0 deaths per 100,000 people, it was consistent with the pre-pandemic rates in 2019 and 2018.

The fall in the suicide rate in 2020 was likely to have been driven by a decrease in male suicides at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and delays in death registrations because of the pandemic, experts believe.

The Labour Party leader will also promise to reduce deaths from heart disease and stroke by a quarter within 10 years, and to hit all NHS cancer targets so patients are seen on time and diagnosed early. He will argue that in order to achieve a sustained change in the NHS, there will have to be three “big shifts” in approach: analogue to digital; hospital to community and sickness to prevention.

Addressing the record 7.3 million people on waiting lists for non-urgent treatment in England, Sir Keir will tell the audience the next Labour government “will deliver an NHS that is there when you need it”, adding: “No backsliding, no excuses. We will meet these standards again. We will get the NHS back on its feet.”

By reforming the NHS and training the staff it needs, the party will also promise to hit NHS targets within five years in order to ensure ambulances get to people in time to save lives, get people seen by a GP when they need, stop people facing dangerously long waits in A&E and guarantee shorter waits for hospital appointments when people need specialist care.

Sir Keir will say in his speech: “We have a plan. We will fight for the NHS. We will fix the NHS. We will reform the NHS. Old values, new opportunities. Technology and science, convenience and control, renewal not decline. An NHS, not just off its knees but running confidently towards the future.”

Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said it was supportive of the Labour pledge to “reverse rising rates of suicide”.

He said: “While most cases of completed suicide are linked to mental illness, at-risk patients are not being identified or offered the mental health treatment that could have prevented their death. The focus on preventing mental illness is the right approach.

“Mental illness can in many cases be prevented with early intervention and by tackling root causes including inequality, racism and abuse. Schools, for example, provide a particularly important space for early intervention.”

Brian Dow, chief executive of charity Mental Health UK, said: “People with mental ill health need good quality care, quickly, close to home. But the state of your finances, security of job and home all play a part in keeping people mentally well, so a cross-government approach on mental health is a vital step in transforming our approach to a subject which now consistently comes up as a high priority for the public.”

Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said on Sunday that a Labour government would over time shift the focus of health spending towards primary care. He said leaders of NHS trusts recognise that the pressure in hospitals is “in part driven by the clogged front door of the NHS” and by the late discharges in social care.

Mr Streeting said Labour was also looking at a “number of things” in relation to prevention measures and promised to go further than the Government on smoking and vaping.

The chief executive of the Health Foundation said it was right to make tackling the challenges over GP access and chronic staff shortages Labour’s main priority.

Dr Jennifer Dixon said: “Any credible plan to improve the NHS needs to be tough on ill-health and tough on the causes of ill-health: our nation’s underlying poor health is holding back growth, contributing to economic inactivity, and adding pressure to all public services.”

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