How the Government responds to an ageing society will make or break the new industrial strategy

Joel Charles, Deputy Chief Executive, Future Care Capital

The much-anticipated industrial strategy was published by the Government this week, despite being upstaged by the very happy news from Clarence House, the reaction to the publication has been wide and produced a mix of reactions on some of the detail. What can be taken from this strategy is a sense that Whitehall realises the significant shift in emphasis it needs to make to meet future linked economic and social challenges that lay ahead because the country is living longer.

We now know that one of the Government’s key priorities for creating the right environment for business to grow and remain competitive is to address the challenges presented by an ageing society. Sitting as one of the four ‘Grand Challenges’ in the strategy, it is welcome news that Ministers will be looking at how an ageing society will impact the wider economy. Far too often an ageing society is viewed through a negative lens, the Government must deliver a positive response and embrace the opportunities presented by longevity.

The strategy sets out an important shift in future emphasis. Last week, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasted sluggish economic growth this year, meaning a wider dilemma for the Government about how to motivate greater levels of productivity in the economy; focus on measures to support older people, help to remain independent in later life and encouraging people to stay in work are part of several strands the Government is pursuing. It is the commitment to greater technological innovation in the strategy that is a mark of Whitehall’s gear change to respond to the rapidly evolving global economy. If we are to avoid being left behind, the Government must move quickly to fulfil these ambitions.

Ministers have signalled a commitment to support greater innovation in age-related products and services that balance the demand of national productivity and the wellbeing of individuals. The strategy will marshal what it says is a new innovative approach through plans to launch a ‘Healthy Ageing’ programme to help older people maintain their independence for longer. A commitment to technology is something we have been calling for in our latest report, Securing the future, by calling on the Government to invest in a transformational programme in ‘pre-care’ measures to ensure homes and communities are designed for age and mobility. The programme could be extended to look at workplaces and wider infrastructure more generally to ensure the right mix of built environments are planned for to meet the needs of an ageing population.

Increased research and development (R&D) is critical if we are to remain at the forefront of digital technology. The industrial strategy includes a commitment to increase investment in R&D by over 2 per cent of GDP by 2027. Using this additional investment to support emergent technology to help increase the independence of older people would be in keeping with the spirit of the strategy and would inject much needed impetus into driving forward plans to respond to ageing. The National Productivity Investment Fund, that has a budget £31bn, should be used to support adaptations and retrofitting of housing with technology to help older people remain active.

There is also a focus on the labour market in the strategy to build improved support for older people, carers and disabled people. The Government plans to work with business to deliver flexible working for all employees. In our latest policy report we call for a greater work-life-care balance, this means recognising the economic contribution of carers to the overall economy and working with employers to develop a culture in the workplace that is supportive of such flexibility.

Moves by the Government to promote artificial intelligence (AI) and a data-driven economy complement what we have advocated around the potential use of health and care data. Whilst it is good news that a new Government Office for AI is going to be set up, we believe Ministers should also look at trusted vehicles for health and care data. Our report, Unleashing the potential of health and care data, recommended setting up a new National Health and Care Data Donor Bank, to coordinate data from the public and help improve the alignment of research to clinical need.

It was interesting to see commitments on NHS care data and the announcement that a number of regional ‘digital innovation hubs’ will be set up for the use of data for research purposes. We have called for something similar pointing to the need for investment in skills and data-driven business clusters across the country in our health and care data report. The Government could consider establishing data-driven business clusters for new health and care enterprises. It is important to encourage and support early stage health and care start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises to succeed. The clusters would provide skills training to help prepare the future workforce for the likely increase in demand for data-related job opportunities.

The Government must perform a careful balancing act if it is to avoid an isolated response to ageing. Economic pressures and wellbeing needs should be addressed in parallel. It is good that the industrial strategy makes reference to the social care consultation and the importance of supporting that work. The industrial strategy will need to be aligned with action plans in the NHS, social care directorates in local authorities and the work carried out by the wider care providers sector. A joined-up approach to ageing will increase the likelihood of the strategy succeeding.

What needs to happen now is a considered approach to translate the ambitions set out in the industrial strategy into practical next steps. Although top-level timescales are in the strategy, it is important that the more detailed action plan should set out long-term solutions and key milestones for changing the consensus on ageing. We should not approach longevity as a problem – if plans are put in place now to meet the demands of our ageing population, the potential advantages on offer present many future opportunities for society at large.

Read the Government’s industrial strategy in full here.