Secretary of State for Health, Andy Burnham, yesterday laid out Labour’s vision for the future of the NHS, setting out the battle lines for the next election as both the Tories and Labour vie for the title ‘Party of the NHS.’
Before listing Labour’s sizable achievements over the past 12 years, Burnham called on voters to imagine David Cameron claiming the NHS for the Conservatives next week at their conference to a delegation with œmore private health care insurance under one roof than at the British Banking Association’s AGM. He divulged how David Cameron had voted for less money for the NHS when they were both newly elected MPs in 2002, reminding delegates and voters œTories don’t change their spots.
As the man credited with putting the second ‘P’ in into the NHS’ latest NHS buzz-word, QIPP (Quality, Innovation, Productivity and Prevention), it was of little surprise to hear Burnham’s speech dominated by policies focused on prevention and shifting emphasis of the NHS from an illness service to a wellness service. He announced a new prevention strategy over the coming year on Alzheimer’s, dementia, mental health and heart disease. He elaborated on the Prime Minister’s announcement on issues including cancer services pledging a new right for cancer patients to get test results in one week and direct GP access to MRI scans and ultrasounds. He also re-avowed the pledge made earlier in the month to abolish GP boundaries within the year in order to improve patient access.
Given the impending budgetary squeezes and the health pledges already declared by the Prime Minister this week, it seemed as though there was little material or budget left for any further spending pledges; not so. The abolishment of hospital car parking charges over the next three years was met with rapturous applause by impassioned delegates. Yet, at an estimated £140 million, it is difficult to see how this will ever be more than abstract promise given the œunprecedented £15-20 billion efficiency savings that the NHS must deliver over the next three years.
Furthermore, difficult questions have been raised over the past couple of days about exactly how many people will benefit from the free personal home care for those with the highest need, pledged by the Prime Minister on Monday and reaffirmed byAndy Burnham. The Department of Health issued a briefing note following the pledge stating that the new policy would be available for 350,000 people with the greatest need who currently pay for these services from October 2010. However, Labour Party officials told the Financial Times that only £640 million had been allocated to the initiative which would fall far short of the estimated £1.7 billion necessary in order to provide an 11 hour package to all 350,000 of these individuals.
Whilst there was no doubt that Burnham’s speech delivered a vision for the NHS, far reaching promises, outstripping available spend, may have left many wondering whether Labour’s promises are any longer credible.