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Climate change the biggest threat to human health

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At a Westminster Health Forum policy conference held online on 21 February, Dr Hayley Pinto, Education and Training lead at The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, discussed some of the biggest challenges facing the NHS from her standpoint as the service and its staff strive to meet demanding Net Zero targets. Worryingly, she said, recent surveys showed that less than half the UK population understand the term ‘Net Zero’, and just a quarter the terms ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’. She warned that ‘we could consider our collective failure to tackle climate change as a safeguarding issue for an entire generation’.

Giving the opening presentation at the half-day online conference, titled 'The next steps for Net Zero and sustainability in the NHS', Dr Pinto was introduced by the Chair for the first half of the event, MP for Crewe & Nantwich, Dr Kieran Mullan — who before being elected as an MP in 2019, was an Emergency Medicine Doctor and Clinical lead for Outcomes Publication at the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership. He also previously worked at the Patients Association. In 2023 he published a review on the opportunities for Deep Geothermal technology in the UK for Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and is a Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deep Geothermal. Before welcoming Dr Pinto, Dr Mullan gave a brief scene-setting introduction.

Thanking attendees for joining, he said the event brought together a topic that 'dominated the news agenda' — climate change, and Net Zero, 'with an issue that perhaps doesn't get the attention it deserves — estates and buildings management in the NHS'. He said: "As an MP I have lobbied and campaigned for new buildings, and in fact a new hospital, visited sites in construction, and attended official openings. However, I can't say I've ever heard of an MP being asked to visit a ward or clinical area due to close, but that the Estates team has managed to keep in use." Dr Mullan continued: "From my time as a clinician, I know what a difference the working environment and fit-for-purpose buildings can make, and the hard work that goes in all year round to try and make that happen — so I want to thank you all for your work; you really are unsung heroes in the NHS. Now you are being asked to do even more heroic stuff, delivering a major programme of decarbonisation alongside your existing challenges. This morning," he continued, "the BBC published research identifying big (healthcare estates) backlogs, and the impact on patient care. The NHS Confederation is asking for an increase from £7.7 bn to £14.1 bn for NHS capital spending. We know there's funding for decarbonisation via the Public Sector Decarbonisation Fund, but also know that it is heavily oversubscribed. Not only do you have a stretching target of Net Zero by 2040 in the NHS, but you're dealing with the stickier end of the wicket."

Dr Mullen noted that the Climate Change Committee recognises heating buildings as 'one of, if not the biggest, challenge'. He said: "And you've got almost 1000 hospitals to heat just as a starting point. That leaves you facing this challenge of Net Zero by 2040 without the money you might want or need to do it. I've developed my own interest in this field — working with the Carbon and Energy Fund to explore how deep geothermal technology can deliver solutions for the NHS. It's a tried and tested source of clean heat being utilised across Europe, including in healthcare settings, and has great potential in the UK." He continued: "While I've talked a lot about buildings and heat, these aren't the only challenges we face. It's also about healthcare products, transport, and waste management, and our speakers today will cover the whole range. I hope you find some ideas, and perhaps some inspiration, for solutions you can put to use. So, without further delay, I'm delighted to introduce Dr Hayley Pinto, who has a clinical background as a consultant psychiatrist. She is going to remind us all of the importance and scale of the challenge, and share her perspective on where we are, and where we need to focus next."

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