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Weaponising the NHS

The NHS is the political battleground on which May’s election is likely to be fought. The Labour leader thinks it is the Conservative’s Achilles’ heel and raises it every week in Prime Minister’s Questions. 

David Cameron made it one of his campaign priorities in 2010 and is now accused of breaking the promises he made then. The 29 A&E and maternity units he promised to save have all closed. A&E waiting times and ambulance response targets are not being met. Cameron had even broken his pledge not to have a top down reorganisation of the NHS.

The PM’s response is to list the improvements the Government have made to the NHS. The health budget had been increased, 9000 new doctors and 6000 new nurses had been employed since 2010. 95% of A&E patients were seen within the four hour target. This contrasted with performance in the Welsh NHS where the Labour administration had cut the health budget and performance is poorer than in England. Cameron’s final punch is to demand Miliband’s apology for saying he wanted to “weaponise the NHS”.

Miliband’s decision to make the NHS the issue on which he aims to win the election may not be as shrewd as he thinks. Attitude surveys reveal that 65% of the public are satisfied with the NHS, up 5% over the last year and the second highest score in the last 30 years. Only a record low of 15% expressed dissatisfaction. The credit for this belongs to the doctors and nurses delivering the service, not to the politicians but even amongst them there are conflicting judgements.

Two former Labour Health Secretaries, Alan Milburn and Alan Johnson have both expressed reservations about Miliband’s choice of the NHS as his lead issue in the election. Johnson cautions his leader against using doom-laden language that is at odds with public opinion and Milburn thinks it could lose the election for Labour. Nor is it only the elder statesmen who are uneasy. Liz Kendall, a Shadow Health Minister, is said to think that simply spending more on the NHS is not the solution. She wants radical reform of the health service, giving people personal health budgets that would enable them to control the service they receive. The feasibility of that is untested but the idea is a long way from the traditional Labour vision for the NHS held by Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary and Ed Miliband.

The Labour Leader has promised to appoint 20,000 more nurses and 8000 more doctors, with a guarantee that people will be able to see a GP within 48 hours and have cancer tests within a week. Delivering those promises will mean big increases in the NHS and medical training budgets. It will also require the service to keep its young medics, too many of whom emigrate because they don’t like the hours they have to work in their early years. GP contracts agreed with the last Labour Government will also have to be renegotiated to achieve the 48 hour target.