This is a momentous occasion - almost one year ago to the day many of us met in the Business Design Centre to initiate the development of the UK Vision Strategy. On that day, I promised that we would launch the Strategy in April 2008 and I am proud, and I confess a little relieved, to have kept that promise.
Over 700 people have contributed and we now have an agreed framework to which we can all sign up. This in itself is momentous but we must continue to work together to ensure these words translate into substantial action. Only this way, working together, will we succeed in making the UK a better place for people who are blind, partially sighted or just beginning to realise the implications of sight-loss.
But before we move forward let me remind you why we care. The UK is one of the richest nations in the developed world, yet it continues to fail its citizens with health and sight-loss services that are unfit to meet current and future needs.
Too many UK citizens do not understand the impact of their health and lifestyles upon their sight. There is limited public health information and support. Put simply, many people don’t know what to do or where to go.
Right now too many people are living with sight loss — sight loss that could have been avoided through earlier detection and treatment.
Right now, too many people who have lost some or all of their vision are still not receiving the necessary support to deal with the emotional trauma of sight-loss or to even manage basic everyday tasks.
And right now despite equality and human rights legislation there is discrimination throughout society that excludes and marginalizes people, often just through ignorance of what sight loss is about and its impact on everyday life.
I believe we all know this just cannot be right and so our strategy focuses on delivering three major outcomes:
First - to improve the eye health of the Nation
Second - to eliminate avoidable sight loss and deliver excellent support to those with a visual impairment
And finally - to enhance the inclusion, participation and independence of blind and partially sighted people.
In recent years some steps have been taken to improve eye health and sight-loss services. This progress is acknowledged. But with today's clear sight we can see just how much more needs to be done to deliver the necessary services for today and tomorrow — for every adult and child who needs them.
I know it is unrealistic to assume we can change everything at once, however passionately I feel. We have therefore set a five year timescale for the delivery of these ambitious aims.
Each country and region of the UK will need to look at what the Strategy means for them and to develop implementation plans to meet the needs of their people. We need to be open to fresh ideas and ensure that whatever we do tackles inequalities, and delivers services that are fair, efficient, person centred and safe. We must be prepared to take on new ways of working and learn from each other. We must take risks - because without doing so we will achieve nothing new.
The development of the Strategy has been supported by all of the UK governments and I am delighted to welcome here today representatives from the Governments of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
So what can we all do - how can we make this document a reality?
- We each need to look at whether our organisations are “fit for purpose”. Will they allow us to work together - united to make change?
- Will they allow us to improve eye health across the UK?
- To eliminate avoidable sight loss?
- To deliver excellent services?
- and change society so that people who are blind are able to participate and live the lifestyle of their choice.
The UK Vision Strategy guides us to a society where services are truly centred on the needs of individuals. A society where health and social care services are properly integrated. It calls for an environment where all UK citizens have access to a straightforward eye health system and where people with sight impairments receive timely and appropriate services.
It calls for more research to ensure there is increased understanding and so that we know what services are needed and where. We must be confident that services are the best they can be. And also highlighted is the need for more research into prevention, treatment and cure.
The Strategy calls for service providers to have a clear route for individuals to follow and demands changes that will lead to more rational and cost- effective methods of operating. The very things that you wrestle with on a day to day basis and that you know need to change.
Of course, this all requires investment, but an investment that must be found - an investment of both money and time. For, if we don’t invest now, in the long run - it will simply cost more. A price that will be measured not only in terms of money but also in terms of personal devastation.
The UK Vision Strategy acknowledges and builds on past progress. But do you know what excites me most? I am thrilled with the step change in the eye health and sight loss sectors commitment and willingness to work together. In a few years we will look back and wonder why it took us so long to realise this.
I'm sure that I am not exaggerating when I say that this is a unique opportunity for us all to make a real and lasting difference to the eye health of the nation and to improve the position of people who have lost some or all of their sight.
The Strategy is both ambitious and aspirational but I know it is also realistic and achievable. Its key strength lies in the fact that it is built on joint agreement from right across the sector – from people who use the services, from health and social care providers, from the voluntary sector and from the many individuals who have influenced the Strategy through the consultation process.
But a word of warning - as we celebrate our desire to change the world, comforted that we are all heading in the same direction, may I ask something of each of you? It would be really great if you could keep at the front of your mind, the fact that we have all had to make compromises to reach the consensus that is our published strategy. We need to guard against delaying progress by constantly seeking to revise its content. It would be all too easy to revert to "isolationary" ways of thinking - which will lose the spirit of consensus that has carried us this far.
I'm immensely proud to have chaired the Strategic Advisory Group that steered the development of the Strategy and I would like to take this opportunity to give my heartfelt thanks to everyone involved - however - I'm also acutely aware that we are only at the beginning of the journey and, I suspect, that the really interesting terrain lies ahead.
Let me leave you with the words of one of the worlds most visionary, but practical, leaders - Mahatma Gandhi.
Carefully watch your thoughts for they become your words
Manage and watch your words for they will become your actions
Consider and judge your actions for they have become your habits
Acknowledge and watch your habits for they shall become your values
Understand your values for they become your destiny……
We, the people in this room, have in our hands the destiny of blind and partially sighted people as well as those who are just beginning to realise the implications of sight loss. We can meet this obligation by delivering the aims of the UK Vision Strategy.