Stephen Hawking was not just a preternaturally gifted scientist and thinker. He was a committed socialist and humanitarian. At today’s PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn invoked Hawking’s memory as he challenged Theresa May over the NHS. The Labour leader quoted Hawking (who clashed last year with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt): “I believe in universal health care. And I am not afraid to say so.”
If the government believes in universal health care, Corbyn asked May, why had a man who has lived in the UK for 44 years (Albert Thompson) been denied cancer treatment? To gasps from some MPs, the Prime Minister replied that she was not aware of the well-publicised case (Thompson faces a bill of £54,000 for care).
May later sought to turn the tables on Corbyn. “I think he raised a case about Georgina with me last October and hasn’t written to me about that case,” she noted.
An angered Corbyn replied that the case was resolved after he raised it (“it shows the power of parliament”). He warned of the NHS’s fragile state, noting that not “a penny extra” was announced in yesterday’s Spring Statement.
May pedantically replied that new funding was provided in last year’s Budget. Yet the government announced just £1.6bn extra for 2018, less than half the amount NHS head Simon Stevens warned was needed to meet demand (£4bn).
In time-honoured style, the Prime Minister then denounced the condition of the NHS in Wales (where Labour is in government). Corbyn replied that it was “a bit rich for her scaremonger over Wales as she abandons targets in England” (though he may have better noted that the Welsh administration is underfunded by Westminster).
The Labour leader ended by again quoting Hawking: “There is overwhelming evidence that NHS funding and the numbers of doctors and nurses are inadequate, and it is getting worse.”
Of that, there is no doubt. Though the Conservatives like to boast that NHS spending has been “protected” since 2010, the health service has in fact endured the longest period of austerity in its history.
Since 1950, health expenditure has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent; over the last parliament it rose by an average of just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, the rising cost of drugs and technology and the growth of chronic conditions, such as obesity and diabetes, all mean that the NHS depends on above-inflation increases. The £4.5bn cut to social care funding has only intensified the pressure on the service (with the NHS acting as a provider of last resort).
In 2002, Gordon Brown rose National Insurance by 1p to pay for the largest-ever increase in NHS funding (£40bn). In the years that followed, patient satisfaction reached record levels. Nearly two decades later, as the service daily declines, the need for a new financial settlement has never been greater. But an enfeebled Prime Minister, consumed by the epic task of Brexit, is in no position to deliver one.