Today, NHS England and five other public health bodies have released a report calling for radical changes to the health service to help it survive an imminent funding crisis.
The six national leading health bodies have outlined a five-year plan for the NHS, putting forward a plan to help plug the annual £30bn shortfall they claim will open up by 2020 – something that has been reported before as the approaching “black hole” in NHS funding.
Key points in their plan include an overhaul in the way the health service works – for example, GP surgeries offering certain hospital services – which could save £22bn. But they insist that £8bn a year will still need to be found by whichever government will be running the country by the end of the decade. Otherwise services will suffer.
Although all parties have reacted positively to the 35-page report, these calls – led by NHS England’s chief executive Simon Stevens – are an intimidating challenge for whichever politicians will be taking charge of the NHS spending plan in the future. None of the three main parties have a plan to plug quite that large a funding gap by the end of the decade.
However, this report could be good news for the Labour party. As a party that is putting the fact that it is most trusted with the health service at the heart of its bid to form the next government, a report like this puts the NHS on top of the political agenda. Neither the Conservatives nor the Lib Dems – and nor even Ukip and the Greens – can now avoid having NHS funding at the top of its priorities.
Labour has made far more headway on seizing the political agenda with plans for the health service than any other party. However, the Tories will find it difficult to respond, because speaking about the NHS – when they are less trusted with it than Labour – is something that doesn’t help them much in the polls. Indeed, George has reported that their election strategist, Lynton Crosby, has advised them not to talk about it at all, to avoid playing “on Labour’s side of the pitch”.
I hear from a Conservative party source that David Cameron “won’t be talking much about the NHS again”, following his passionate, though far from radical, promise to continue ring-fencing its budget during his conference speech this autumn.
Now the only time we hear the PM mention the health service is in relation to the NHS in Wales. As in PMQs yesterday, he incessantly seeks to make political points against the opposition by blaming Labour for any failings he can find in the Welsh service. Following this report from NHS England calling for drastic changes, Cameron’s obsession with the Welsh example is rapidly going to sound hollow and irrelevant.
Finally, the report’s suggestion of a reorganisation on a local level also helps Labour. Although the party has spent most of this parliament condemning the coalition’s Health and Social Care Act for yet another top-down restructuring of the health service, and promising that its own changes wouldn’t constitute a restructuring, it can now get away with the overhaul it will inevitably need to implement.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham’s “whole-person care” plan to join up health and social care doesn’t have a precise spending strategy yet; we just hear the claim that it is a more “efficient” way of treating each individual patient. This suggests that the proposal will consist of restructuring, to an extent, to make some savings. The report today validates such a plan to do so.