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Minister for Veterans' Affairs speech to the Veterans Trauma Network

A speech from Minister Johnny Mercer to the annual conference of the Veterans Trauma Network.

The first thing I want to say is thank you.

If you look at where we were and where we’ve come, we’ve made extraordinary progress for the people we’re trying to help. So thank you for everything you’ve done, and for the way everyones applied themselves to this, and congratulations on the Health Service Journal Award, which I know is an important moment as well.

I want to reiterate this government’s position on veterans affairs after what was clearly a rather turbulent period last year. I hope that my appointment is an indication of what this Prime Minister wants to achieve in this space. I clearly would not have returned to Government if I did not think the Prime Minister was serious about achieving that combined ambition of making this the best country in the world to be a veteran. I intend to put the turbulence behind us and move on, and maintain my consistency in this role and what I want to see in turning that vision of the UK being the best country in the world to be a veteran, into a reality, an actual reality, for our veterans in communities up and down this country.

I congratulate the entire NHS on their commitment to this mission. Locally in my constituency, I pay tribute to Jon Coates, for all his work, and his predecessor, Joe Kyo as well. And I know this is replicated in trusts up and down the nation. The NHS has always been a deep and close friend of veterans, and I pay particular tribute to Kate Davies and the work we’ve done together over the years, for her relentless commitment in this space, and I hope that we can continue to work closely in 2023.

But I wanted to come along today chiefly to seek your help. I am in the process, at the moment, of building really clear pathways of veterans support across the United Kingdom.

Of course, Op Courage, the one you’ve heard of, was the pioneer, a single clear defined pathway for veterans to access world-class mental health care. Rooted, commissioned and ordered by the NHS in England. During its first year, it had 19,000 referrals. Which is a massive unmet need and shows you what we can do in this space if we design good programmes where there’s room for everybody, everybody comes together and we deliver it.

Last month, the Prime Minister launched Op Fortitude, something similar in the space of homelessness, for some of our most vulnerable veterans. This programme initially ran over Christmas last year, ensuring no veteran involuntarily slept rough over the Christmas period. We’re going to launch formally on the 1st of April this year, working with great partners, like Riverside and Stoll, we will end veterans homelessness in this country in 2023.

It’s an extremely complex issue. It’s not as presented by many actors, but I’m confident by the end of 2023 with the money and the programmes that we’ll put in, there will be no veterans sleeping involuntarily rough in this country.

It won’t surprise you that I want to do the same with physical health care needs this year.

The number one challenge for veterans seeking help in this country remains navigating the various options available, and understanding the offers of help they receive.

Standardising some of the excellent service they receive right across the country and removing the kind of lottery of postcode opportunities. Similarly, it is not right, that after so much money and effort has gone in, by a lot of people in this room, to improving where we were, from those early days of Iraq, or Afghanistan, or indeed, back in the 90s, that those of our most seriously wounded continue to have an opaque view of how their needs will be met in 2, in 5 or in 10 years time. I want to resolve these issues in quick time and launch a clear pathway for physical veterans care across the United Kingdom.

The Veterans Trauma Network is at the heart of this. With the best of the NHS working in collaboration with wraparound care from our charity sector. I want this single pathway to expand nationwide and ensure that every veteran with physical and complex health care needs can benefit. I want to improve accessibility, increase innovation and have a system that is responsive to new data and evidence in ways that we haven’t seen before.

Of course, a large part of this work will be increasing awareness. You do so much good work already and for 15 years you’ve pioneered combat medical innovations, ensuring that those with the most severe injuries are much more likely to survive and thrive. It’s about standardising that approach, it’s about formalising your work and crucially bringing government resource and commitment to your programmes, to ensure their enduring nature in the years to come.

A real service innovation is the multidisciplinary approach you take, addressing not just physical health needs, but the wider health and social needs of the veteran so they can heal, recover and thrive. We need to build stronger collaboration with a wider range of partners in the state sector and charities to keep delivering this. Ensuring veterans receive the very best of British science and technology that healthcare has to offer. That is why the Government launched the Health Innovation Fund on which I will have more to say in the weeks ahead.

That’s why Op Courage has been so successful.

That’s why we’ve put so much effort into understanding the veterans picture, through data which we did not have in this country. So we could demonstrate the kind of openness and agility to meet the changing demands of our physically injured, as time progresses, from those who lost limbs, to those who suffer musculoskeletal injuries, or in need of pain management, through to the care needs of the aged veteran.

The Office for Veterans’ Affairs has and continues to change what it means to be a veteran in the UK today. This Prime Minister has me around his cabinet table because he wants to get it right. There is political and public support, but professionalising veterans care and getting it onto a sustainable footing for the decades ahead like never before, so that we never return again to the days of the past that we know too well.

But we must all play our role and that’s why I’m here today. I want everyone who has enduring physical health needs from their time in service to experience the benefit of the veterans Trauma Network. I want it to be easy to access on a standardised basis, not based on who you know, or where you live, but on a needs basis across the Nation.

I want everyone to know about your great work. I want it to be a future focused on an enduring, ambitious footing, with full Government and Prime Ministerial support. And I’m determined we will get there, with Op Fortitude, Op Courage and this growing network - whatever you want to call it - we are building permanent strong foundations and pillars of support for veterans across the United Kingdom.

Everybody has a role to play in that national duty - not mine or a few of us here - but that national duty towards this country’s armed forces veterans.

I very much look forward to working with all of you in the months ahead.

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