Liz Truss, the new unelected Prime Minister, chosen as Tory Party leader by just 81,326 votes, has begun her leadership. She has no real mandate, but nevertheless will continue as PM until the next general election, due to take place in January 2025.
Truss served as Environment Secretary under David Cameron, as Justice Secretary under Theresa May and last year as Foreign Secretary under Boris Johnson.
NHS ignored in Truss’s campaign
Truss has pledged to cut taxes in a bid to stimulate growth in the economy, however public services seem bound to suffer under this proposal with even less funding going into the already grossly underfunded NHS.
Bizarrely, in the middle of the worst crisis that has ever faced our health service, Truss barely even mentioned the NHS in her campaigning tour. This omission and her seeming refusal to acknowledge, much less engage with the urgent problems, does not bode well for her future dealings with a health service facing enormous challenges. Her appointment of close supporter Therese Coffey (someone with no knowledge or expertise in the area of health) also does not exactly send a message that the NHS is one of her key priorities.
Even former Health Secretary (and now chair of the health and social care committee) Jeremy Hunt, recognises the urgency of the situation:
The Prime Minister has recently criticised her predecessor, Boris Johnson, for his actions during the pandemic, calling his Covid policies ‘Draconian.’ The new PM said it had been a mistake to close schools, telling a leadership husting that:
I can assure you … that I would never impose a lockdown if I am selected as prime minister.
And yet The People’s Covid Inquiry demonstrated clearly how the Johnson government’s failure to lock down promptly led to thousands of avoidable deaths. Truss’s short-sighted attitude is based on shallow populist posturing and shows a lack of understanding of the needs of public health and the NHS in a time of service-wide crisis. We can only hope Ms Truss is not faced with such a crisis during her tenure as government leader.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul
What few noises Truss has made around the health service show a lack of understanding of the immediate issues at hand. Acknowledging the inherent link between health and social care, she has plans to use a huge £10bn of the NHS budget to pay for social care. A significant reason for the lack of beds and flow in hospitals is because medically fit patients cannot be discharged due to a lack of social care in their communities, so this absolutely needs to be addressed. However, this must not be an either/or scenario. The threat to divert health funding to the care sector is dangerous for the NHS. And without serious transformation of social care, the funding will go to private sector interests including hedge fund owners, rather than to reform care workers’ pay and conditions.
The biggest single issue facing the NHS is staffing. There hasn’t been a workforce review in nearly 20 years and reducing the NHS budget still further will not assist in paying existing staff properly, or employing new ones. There are now a staggering 132,000 vacancies across the health service and 165,000 in the care sector. Many workers have left due to the enormous pressures of the pandemic and general working environment where the job they trained to do has now been reduced to firefighting on a daily basis. Levels of mental ill health amongst the workforce are understandably very high, and Truss and her new government are offering no solutions.
Dr John Lister writes in The Lowdown about the PM’s background:
What is more worrying is that Liz Truss herself has embraced many of the right-wing policies and “solutions”. She is one of an 8-strong Parliamentary Board of the 1828 Committee, whose ‘Neoliberal Manifesto’, published jointly with the Adam Smith Institute in 2019, condemns the NHS record as “deplorable” and calls for the UK to “emulate the social health insurance systems as exist in countries such as Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Israel, among others.” The Manifesto is silent on the fact that (with the exception of the deeply flawed Israeli system) all of its preferred models spend much more per head on health than the UK.
Truss [has] long-standing links to other right wing think tanks including the notoriously anti-NHS Institute for Economic Affairs [IEA], which, with the Adam Smith Institute appears to be the source of many of her ideas on the economy and the cost of living crisis.
Fuelling a public health crisis?
Details of support offered for non-domestic energy consumers (like the NHS) will be announced imminently, but in any case, will not start until October. Without a significant injection of emergency funding, the NHS would need to make cut-backs to services offered in order to balance the books. Even if the NHS sees adequate support with its running costs though, the impact of fuel poverty on the general population is likely to trigger a public health emergency, with many people requiring medical support as a result of living in cold homes or facing the effects of malnutrition, and coming to harm or dying from the impact of dangerous waiting times.
As well as risking public health over fuel poverty, Truss is reportedly considering rolling back a whole host of measures designed to curb obesity and create a healthier population. If she does so, this will create even greater pressure on the NHS. Free-market thinktanks such as the IEA have long lobbied against anti-junk food legislation and Liz Truss has spoken at more of their events than any other politician over the last 12 years. She is now considering reversing the ban on ending supermarket deals on unhealthy foods, reviewing the ban on unhealthy advertisements before 9pm and possibly even cancelling anti-obesity measures that are already operational.
This populist U-turn will undermine public health and only serves to appease her shady backers. The inevitable effects of such policy decisions on the NHS are of significant concern. Truss has already proven her hostility to the founding principles of the NHS – the task for campaigners is to persuade opposition parties to defend them.
Samantha Wathen is the Press and Media Officer for Keep Our NHS Public