New ‘Expert Panel’ and ‘grassroots campaign’ to help NHS reach ‘net zero’

NHS CEO, Sir Simon Stevens (pictured), has announced that the NHS and its staff will ‘step up action to tackle the climate health emergency’ via three key measures – the first a new ‘expert panel’ to “chart a practical route map this year to enable the NHS to get to ‘net zero’”, the second a proposed new NHS Standard Contract calling on hospitals to reduce carbon from buildings and estates, switch to ‘less polluting anaesthetic gases and better asthma inhalers’, and encourage more active travel for staff, and the third a ‘grassroots campaign’ to encourage staff and hospitals ‘to cut their impact on people’s health and the environment’.

NHSE / NHSI said the announcement, on 25 November, followed the launch, just days earlier, of the ‘Climate Assembly UK’. Its introduction followed a call by six House of Commons Select Committees last June for a new ‘citizens’ assembly’, to ‘understand public preferences on how the UK should tackle climate change because of the impact these decisions will have on people’s lives’. The Department of Health & Social Care says England’s health and care system accounts for an estimated 4-5% of the country’s carbon footprint.

Dr Nick Watts, of University College London, a medical doctor and executive director of Lancet Countdown, ‘the independent international expert group that tracks the links between climate change and health’, will chair the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel. Via the ‘roadmap’ it will establish, the goal is to enable the NHS to become the world’s first major health service to reach ‘net zero’. NHSE / NHSI said: “The Expert Panel will look at changes the NHS can make in its own activities, in its supply chain, and through wider partnerships. These include the Long Term Plan commitment to better use technology to make up to 30 million outpatient appointments redundant, sparing patients thousands of unnecessary trips to and from hospital.”

The Panel will also look at potential changes in the NHS’s medical devices, consumables, and pharmaceutical supply policies, and ‘areas the NHS can influence’ – such as the energy sector, as the health service moves to using more renewable energy. It will submit an interim report to NHS England this summer, with the final report expected this Autumn, ahead of the COP26 International Meeting in Glasgow.

Sir Simon Stevens said: “With almost 700 people dying potentially avoidable deaths due to air pollution every week, we are facing a health emergency, as well as a climate emergency. The NHS is already a world leader in sustainability, but as the country’s biggest employer, comprising nearly a tenth of the UK economy, we’re both part of the problem and the solution. That’s why we are mobilising our 1.3 million staff to take action for a greener NHS, and why we’ll be working with the world’s leading experts to help set a practical, evidence-based, and ambitious date for the NHS to reach net zero.”

The second new measure will be the proposed new NHS Standard Contract, and the third the start of the service’s own ‘grassroots campaign, ‘For a Greener NHS’, ‘to encourage staff and hospitals to cut their impact on people’s health and the environment,. Supported by the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change – which includes representative bodies covering over 650,000 NHS staff -- the campaign will ‘build on the work already underway to help trusts and staff to cut emissions, energy use, and waste, including phasing out oil and coal boilers, and increased use of LED lighting and electric vehicles’.

Staff and local NHS organisations are being encouraged to feed in ideas, and ‘evidence of steps they may have already taken within their own hospital’, to the Expert Panel. NHSE / NHSI say that ‘collectively’, the NHS’s 1.3million staff ‘could make a huge impact’ on the campaign’. For example, each person switching to refillable water bottles instead of plastic one could save 65 kg CO2 annually. Meanwhile one London Trust showed that ‘just by turning off printers, computers, and other equipment overnight, and managing heat loss’, each staff member was able to reduce CO2 emissions by an average of 70 kg a year.

Chris Hopson, CEO of NHS Providers, said: “Given the size of our carbon footprint, the NHS has both a moral obligation and a unique opportunity to lead national action to address our current global climate emergency. With global warming inexorably leading to significant increases in a range of physical and mental health conditions – including cancer, heart attacks, anxiety disorders, strokes, and severe asthma attacks, it also makes complete sense in terms of trying to manage future health demand.”

UNISON, general secretary, Dave Prentis added: “Involving staff is crucial if the NHS is to help the UK meet its emissions targets in good time. They know more than anyone how the health service ticks, and so are best placed to make practical, ‘green’ suggestions to get the NHS to where it needs to be. But the implications for the NHS building stock are huge. Everyone must now work together to understand how environment-harming heating and lighting systems can be replaced without redirecting funds from patient care.”