Happy birthday NHS, 72 years young. The unprecedented challenge of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented show of support and celebration for our most treasured national institution, surpassing perhaps even the tributes shown for the recent spectacular 70th birthday.

Birthdays can be as much a time for reflection as celebration. For all the genuine outpouring of affection and gratitude for the NHS, you can’t escape the feeling that we are standing at a crossroads. Our 73rd year should be the year that we finally and radically tackle two issues that have always been on our collective “to do” pile but seemingly never quite reaching the top of the inbox; namely, our ability to modernise the NHS through the use of innovations that reimagine pathways of care and, secondly, our understanding of, and accountability for, how the NHS perpetuates racism amongst our staff and in the care we give to our public.

The pandemic has laid bare the stark inequalities in health and socio-economic status that have always been present in our society. What shouldn’t have taken us by surprise did indeed manage to do just that. Witness the early days of the pandemic when much was spoken of the need to research whether the virus targeted specific genetic properties of non-white people given the disproportionate number of BAME deaths. The newly announced NHS Race and Health Observatory, hosted by the NHS Confederation will be an important new resource to identify and tackle the specific health challenges facing people from BAME backgrounds.

Much of our focus on tackling race inequality within the NHS rightly focuses on frontline staff representation and the makeup of our health leadership community. But if we are to not be “surprised” by why BAME people would be more at risk of a pandemic that disproportionately affects those with lower socio-economic status, we also need to shine a brighter light on how we improve the diversity within our research and innovation sectors.

This is something that we take very seriously within the AHSN Network. Last year I launched our work on Diversity and Innovation. Our work includes a number of pledges that every AHSN has committed to and that are designed to improve our internal approach to recognising and supporting the diversity within our staff, whilst also ensuring that the innovation pipeline that fuels our work is accessible to all innovators. The business case is clear. 19.1% of staff in the NHS identify as BAME; if we are not creating the conditions to be able to listen to and nurture transformative ideas from all our staff, then we are closing the door on one fifth of our potential future opportunities.

We will not succeed in addressing health inequalities without diverse innovators, both from within and outside of the NHS. We need innovators from all backgrounds who can develop and support solutions that enable the inclusion of all members of our society and that is what our work aims to do.

Our NHS should represent and reflect the communities we serve. This does not just apply to our front line workforce. The way that we develop and adopt innovation and technology must also be based around our core mission to serve all our population, and to ensure that the transformation of our health service reduces, and not widens, health inequalities.

So happy birthday NHS. Standing at the crossroads it does seem like we are about to make a bold step towards a system that places health inequalities at the heart of its understanding and decision making. I truly hope so.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richarddstubbs