History is repeating itself. The Conservatives have crashed the economy, causing homeowners’ mortgage rates to soar, with the party paying a heavy price in public opinion. A changed Labour Party is speaking for the country again. Public services are on their knees. Patients are waiting months or even years for NHS treatment. And once again, the siren voices on the right are demanding “a hard look at how we fund the health service”.
It takes some brass neck for the Conservatives, who have run down the NHS and left seven million patients waiting for treatment, to now argue that a health service funded through general taxation, free at the point of use, can never provide good levels of care. That is the miserabilist argument coming from the right today.
There is no doubt that the NHS is gripped by the biggest crisis in its history. Patients find it impossible to get a GP appointment when they need one. Stroke victims are waiting around an hour for an ambulance. Vast swaths of England are “dentistry deserts”, where no NHS dentist is taking on new patients. It is no wonder that patient satisfaction is at its lowest level since 1997. Things can only get better.
The Conservatives try to blame Covid. That doesn’t explain why the NHS went into the pandemic with already record-long waiting lists, why the four-hour A&E waiting-time target hasn’t been met since 2015, or why the number of cancer patients not getting care on time has increased in every single year since 2010. The crisis in the NHS is a staffing crisis.
The NHS went into the pandemic with 100,000 staff shortages, while there were 112,000 vacancies in social care. Jeremy Hunt admits his “share of responsibility” for this crisis, too late. Earlier this year, Labour supported an amendment to the Health and Care Bill in parliament, to establish an independent assessment of the number of staff the NHS needs for the future. Conservative MPs voted it down, choosing instead to bury their heads in the sand.
Without a plan to give the NHS the staff it needs, the government has no plan for the NHS. Despite the 10,500 doctor positions unfilled in the NHS today, this summer the government cut the number of medical school places by 30 per cent. Straight-A students are being turned away when we need them more than ever before.
To the doctors and nurses in the NHS who are overstretched and exhausted, and the patients who are fed up with the struggle to be seen on time, my message is this: the cavalry is coming with Labour.
The next Labour government will oversee the biggest expansion of the NHS workforce in history. We will double the number of medical school places, training 15,000 new doctors a year. We will create 10,000 new nursing and midwifery placements, double the number of district nurses qualifying every year and recruit 5,000 new health visitors, all paid for by abolishing the non-dom tax status enjoyed by a privileged few. Those who make Britain their home should pay their taxes here.
This will not be a quick fix. However, we cannot continue kicking the can down the road. The Conservatives’ approach to this is reminiscent of the interview with Nick Clegg from 2010 which has recently re-emerged, in which he argued against investing in new nuclear power because it wouldn’t come on stream until 2022. We need to address the root cause of the crisis in the NHS. A sticking plaster won’t do.
In return for more investment, we will demand higher standards for patients. Thérèse Coffey’s first major announcement as Health Secretary was to set an “expectation” that patients should be able to get a GP appointment within two weeks. The previous Labour government guaranteed appointments within two days.
Labour will make better use of technology to give all patients the ability to book online, the opportunity to self-refer to specialist services where appropriate, and a wider range of choice so that we can choose whether we want to see a GP face to face, on the phone or via a video link. No more waiting on the phone at 8am to book an appointment.
There is so much evidence that continuity of care benefits patients and takes pressure off the health system. Patients with ongoing health conditions don’t want to be pushed from pillar to post, having to explain their conditions over and over again. Labour will bring back the family doctor by providing new incentives for GPs.
The Labour Party has always understood that the NHS needs to change to adapt to modern challenges. Unlike the right, we understand it doesn’t need to deviate from its founding principles to do so. As Nye Bevan said in 1948, “The service must always be changing, growing and improving.” After a decade of stagnation and decline under the Conservatives, Labour will make the NHS fit for the future.
If you compare Britain to other major economies, we’re top of the table for spending in hospitals, but at the bottom or lagging behind when it comes to primary care, mental health, public health and diagnostics. The truth is that we spend far too much money in our hospitals, because we don’t focus enough on prevention, early intervention and social care. Every time a patient ends up in A&E because they couldn’t get an appointment with their GP, it is worse for the patient and more expensive for the taxpayer.
Recently I spent time shadowing a district nurse in Romford in Essex with the Queen’s Nursing Institute. I watched her at work, caring for a lung cancer patient in the comfort of his own home – freeing up a hospital bed for someone else – and providing palliative care to a man who was dying at home, surrounded by his family. This should be the future for healthcare.
The next Labour government will agree a ten-year plan of change and modernisation to shift healthcare out of the hospital and into the community. Along with our commitments to hire and train more district nurses and health visitors, we will recruit 8,500 mental-health workers to provide support in every school and treatment within a month for all who need it. And by ensuring full rights at work and fair pay for care workers, we will unblock the exit door to hospitals, reducing the 400,000 delayed discharges every month and providing better quality social care – the first step in our mission to build a National Care Service.
Patients are sick. And they are tired of waiting. Labour will give Britain the fresh start it needs.
This article originally appeared in our Spotlight supplement on Healthcare, published on 28 October 2022. Read the full supplement here.