The NHS will influence this election, whether it’s “weaponised” or not

Every election brings calls not to play political football with the NHS, but this time it won’t matter what the parties say.

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Here we go. Come the election, come the disingenuous calls not to “politicise” an inconvenient policy area.

This week, it’s the NHS. A massive hunk of the public sector born of universal healthcare values and a cherished, enduring pillar of the post-war consensus should apparently be considered not political.

In an intervention reminiscent of the big confected hoo-ha in January 2015 over Ed Miliband seeking to “weaponise” the NHS, leading health figures have told parties not to use the NHS for political advantage.

They shouldn’t treat the NHS as a “political weapon”, said Chris Hopson, head of NHS Providers, a membership group for UK health trusts. Condemning the “bidding war between the main parties as to who is the best friend of the NHS” in a piece for the Times, Hopson warned against “over-dramatising or distorting” the health service’s difficulties, and “disingenuous claims about extra funding” and creating “unrealistic expectations”.

“Loud calls” for more resources for the NHS are “guaranteed vote bait” and a “sure-fire way of getting a round of applause on Question Time”, wrote Carrie MacEwen, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges – a medical professional standards body – also in the Times.

But the headline, that “Main parties lying about NHS, doctors warn”, isn’t quite right. These aren’t doctors. These are individuals leading organisations that represent parts of the NHS.

The main doctor’s voice we’ve heard on the state of the NHS this campaign, and which has resonated on social media, is that of a medical student who told reporters exactly what she thought of Boris Johnson visiting her hospital.

This is the problem with calling on things not to be politicised, when they simply are. It’ll come out either way. And looking at the circumstances of this election campaign, it could significantly influence the result.

Take the flu season in Australia this year. It was particularly bad, and longer than expected. This is usually a sign that it will travel here, and affect the UK badly – as with the “Aussie flu” warnings last winter.

We know from the winter of 2017 that an extremely bad flu outbreak can exacerbate NHS pressures in winter, pushing it into a “winter crisis” as we saw in 2017/18 and 2018/19.

We don’t even need to see harrowing front pages about patients treated in corridors to know this – we just need to have any relationship at all with healthcare, which most of us do, even if simply booking routine GP appointments.

Last month, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine found from NHS data that 4,000 to 6,000 extra beds would be needed to “keep emergency departments moving” and avoid “corridor care” this winter – and that’s much lower than NHS Providers’ estimate of a 15,000 bed shortage.

Stretched NHS resources are one of the many public funding problems, along with rough sleeping and the proliferation of potholes, which come into sharp focus in winter. The political parties couldn’t avoid the NHS as an issue even if they wanted to this election.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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