Given the ongoing and very real crisis it faces, the NHS has been conspicuous by its relative absence at this year’s Conservative Party Conference. While it remains one of the most important issues with voters, it has nevertheless been touched upon very little by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Steven Barclay this week. Perhaps this should be no surprise seeing as the NHS will be likely be the Tories’ ‘Achilles heel’ at the next election.
In the current economic climate of the worst cost-of-living crisis in generations for which the Conservatives are responsible, the government claims it simply cannot afford to commit to significant spending on public services. Neither do they concede any responsibility for the current crisis in our NHS that patients are experiencing due to 13 years of underinvestment and increased privatisation on their watch.
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay very briefly touched upon committing to AI developments to assist in diagnosing stroke and cancer patients with a £30 million investment, but this is not a new announcement and will do nothing to address the spiralling staffing crisis and sky-high waiting lists at almost 8 million.
Instead, when the NHS has been talked about at all, the focus has been on their announcement that trans hospital patients are to be banned from female- and male-only wards, and the release of the baffling statement that the Conservatives plan to ‘Kick woke ideology out of science’; a highlight among a series of equally unhinged moments at this year’s conference.
We welcome their long overdue proposal to raise the legal age of smoking, for as well having obvious health benefits, it could go some way to ease the burden on the NHS. However, if the government really wants to end the NHS crisis, ending the stranglehold of private companies, full pay justice for health and care workers, and a commitment to funding increases in line with comparable economies, would have been a more welcome intervention.
However, their announcements are driven by optics not compassion, nor a real desire to save our NHS from the crisis they have engineered.
As the Conservatives lurch ever closer to UKIP-style dog-whistle politics looking to scapegoat refugees and avoid the blame for their disastrous rule over the past decade, see Braverman’s Enoch Powel inspired ‘Hurricane of mass migration’ speech, they are using the same tactics when avoiding blame for their record on the NHS.
Their attempt to detract attention away from the real and pressing issues facing patients and staff, while blaming already marginalised sections of the community, must be called out and totally rejected. It is a desperate move that will simply not wash with the majority of the electorate.
In 2019 Boris Johnson was elected partly on his grand plans for the NHS. Amongst these was £350m a week more for the NHS, 40 new hospitals and the promise to recruit 5,000 more GPs. According to Richard Sloggett, a previous policy advisor to Matt Hancock, the government looks set to achieve just 14 of its 35 health-related election pledges. There will be just one new hospital due to be built before the next general election and several are at risk of falling down thanks to a lack of essential maintenance. Far from recruiting any more, GP’s, numbers have actually fallen by 3% with many more of the workforce demoralsed and exhausted.
Heads in the sand
Both the Health Secretary and Prime Minister chose to attack striking doctors in their speeches and to blame them for astronomically high waiting lists. The BMA was referred to as ‘militant’ and striking doctors were offered up as another convenient scapegoat for all that is currently going wrong with the NHS.
Barclay did reiterate the commitment to 800 new ambulances, 5,000 additional hospital beds and 10,000 spaces on virtual wards to treat patients at home, despite the fact that such a promise will be impossible to deliver without sufficient staffing levels, levels they’ll never achieve while they remain intransigent on staff pay and training bursaries.
One could be forgiven for thinking they have no intention delivering their NHS promises.
Sunak touched briefly on the NHS Long Term Plan and how it would ensure a workforce fit for the future. However, all this means nothing without measures in place to deal with the pressing issue of staff retention, and the steady exodus of NHS trained doctors and other health professionals to Australia and other countries seeking out decent pay. The one thing that could genuinely help would be meaningful negotiation with doctors’ unions, but on this the government stubbornly refuses to comply.
Dumbing down on doctors
There was also reference in Steve Barclay’s speech to shorter degrees for medical professionals:
“This is alongside our new pilot for medical degree apprenticeships. A new route into medicine for young people yearning to train to become a doctor but who want to take a vocational route, because our party is the party of real opportunity for anyone, no matter where you come from…Shorter degrees. New roles. And more ways onto the NHS career ladder.”
It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that undermining the process by which a doctor qualifies may well be a threat to patient safety. Furthermore, some medics have commented that it could make the UK a laughing stock when it comes to doctor qualifications.
This policy throws up far more questions than answers and has nothing to do with better treatment for patients or attracting disadvantaged groups into medicine, and everything to do with boosting workforce numbers quickly and artificially in order to make the government look good.
Private sector will grow under Conservative Government
Both Sunak and Barclay spoke about giving patients the ‘choice’ of whether to have their care administered by private providers if it meant they could access faster treatment. The direction of travel is predictable with this government, yet disappointingly, the Labour Party is also making similar noises about committing to a public-private model for health care provision. We oppose such a commitment, regardless from which party or direction it comes.
Keep Our NHS Public co-chair Tony O’Sullivan, recently called on the Labour Party to do better on this vital point too,
“A commitment to funding, restoring, and expanding the NHS, alongside investment in social care and education, would strengthen our economy and re-establish our country as one of the best health care providers in the world. Failure to do so will let the population down. It will hasten further undermining of the NHS model, perhaps beyond repair. Failure to do so would be a betrayal of Labour Party policy. It would be aiding and abetting the demise of the NHS as a public service. We will not accept that.”
We await the Labour Party’s statements on the NHS in their conference which starts this Sunday 8th October.
As the Conservatives flounder in the polls and receive increasing criticism of their record, our health service remains in grave danger from their damaging policies – damaging policies which cost lives.
Despite the attempts to distract and dissemble at this year’s Conservative Party Conference, the NHS will continue to be one of the biggest issues facing the nation and will undoubtedly shape the debates – and very likely the outcome – of any upcoming general election.
It is our duty therefore to make sure our vision of a people’s NHS, based on its founding principles, universal, free-at-the-point-of-use, owned wholly by, managed by and accountable to the public – shapes the narrative in the months and years to come.