The NHS can be the Labour party's most powerful weapon, but also its biggest stumbling block. While the party gains a great deal of warmth from the electorate for being associated with protecting the health service and its core value as being free at the point of use, and having been its founder, this also makes it vulnerable to criticism if it ever wants to so much as tweak its outlook or plans for health policy.
While the Conservative party, whose NHS reforms have been particularly controversial and unpopular, particularly among doctors and health workers, frenziedly attacks the opposition on the record of the Labour-led Welsh NHS, the Labour party has been beavering away attempting to figure out how it can maintain its reputation for being the party of the NHS while governing under austerity, if it reaches government in 2015.
The shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, who served as health secretary when Labour was last in government, has been pushing his plan for “whole-person care” for a long while. The most basic definition of this rather clunkily-labelled plan (I’ve always thought it sounds a bit like a weird euphemism for undergoing general anaesthetic), is joining up health and social care, for a more holistic approach to caring for patients throughout their lives, and to stop physical, mental and social care being in separate compartments.
Today, the shadow care minister Liz Kendall is to lay out how joining up health and social care would be used by Labour to make savings in order to fund the shortfall in the NHS budget.
Burnham and his team have long been calling the “whole-person care” idea “efficient”, as well as a better service for the individual patient. He told me in February that the policy is “actually about efficiency” and “spending money we already put into the health and care system much better than we currently do.”
Hinting at Ed Miliband’s initial reticence over the plan – there was a time during the last Labour party conference when it was widely-thought Burnham would be reshuffled – Burnham also said in my interview that he was “assuming that there’s going to be no huge amounts of money for health and social care”, and asked “how do we get much better results for people from what we’re currently putting in? Whole-person care comes from that quite hard-headed assessment of the future outlook of public spending.”
The shadow health secretary also chuckled that upon nearly elbowing Ed Balls in the face at a football match they both took their children to, the shadow chancellor gave such a scowl that a man next to them joked: "I think you’ve just lost the NHS £10bn there in the next spending review". But jokes and violence aside, it's no secret that Balls, and Miliband, have been wary about Burnham's plans, reportedly blocking his idea to hand NHS cash to councils earlier this year.
However, this is the first time Labour’s health team has said its joined-up approach will specifically make savings to plug the apparently imminent “black hole” in the NHS budget. This suggests that the policy has finally received support from Miliband and Balls – indeed, Kendall’s announcement comes a few days after the shadow chancellor ruled out an estates tax or a national insurance hike as sources of funding.
In her speech today, Kendall will say:
Huge cuts to social care are piling further pressure on local hospitals. £3.5bn has been cut from local council care budgets since 2010 and a quarter of a million fewer older and disabled people are getting vital services like home care visits, which help them get up, washed, dressed and fed.
It will be a choice between care going backwards, with fragmented services and money wasted under the Tories – or Labour's plans to fully join-up the NHS and social care so we get the best results for users and the best value for taxpayers' money.
Labour still needs to clarify exactly how this policy will go towards patching up the £2bn shortfall in the NHS budget in England next year alone predicted by health officials, and also whether it is the best approach to the costly strains of an ageing population. But it seems that what it has achieved is some agreement between those holding the purse-strings in the party and Burnham – who is said privately to support an estates tax – and his health team.