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Labour on Health: Turning a new leaf?

Robert Ede

Jonathan Ashworth’s appearance at Labour Conference yesterday included the key party messages, but also set out eye-catching fresh thinking.

As you would expect, Jonathan Ashworth’s appearance at Labour Conference yesterday included the key party messages: the Conservatives’ record on malnutrition, cancer outcomes, privatisation and A&E and GP waiting times were all under the spotlight. At points, the speech felt interchangeable from his previous two as Shadow Health Secretary in 2017 and 2018. This disciplined approach (either effective or stale dependent on your viewpoint) went down well in the hall.

Yet in one area Ashworth set out fresh thinking: on the relationship between the NHS and the environment. At the centre is an eye-catching new policy to plant a million trees on the NHS estate – one for every employee in the health service in England. The timing is far from coincidental, with Conference kicking off less than 48 hours after millions participated in Friday’s global climate strike.

Another key announcement was to ban all prescription charges, bringing England into line with Scotland and Wales. The move is smart in several ways: it is easily understood, can be implemented quickly, and the total cost – around £740 million a year – is manageable. Other ‘retail’ policies made ahead of general elections often come with a bigger price tag. The main beneficiaries would be those with common conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and chronic kidney disease, whilst Ashworth used the story of Holly Worboys (who died from an asthma attack in 2016) as one of his main motivations for abolishing prescription charges. This helped reinforce his earlier message – that Labour is serious about addressing poor air quality and the respiratory conditions that stem from it.

Another takeaway was the number of times Boris Johnson was mentioned (four) with Ashworth quick to highlight the Prime Minister’s recent trip to Whipps Cross – during which he was confronted by the father of a patient.  By contrast, Theresa May was not mentioned once by Ashworth in his speech last year. This implies that Labour think they can exploit a perceived weakness of Boris Johnson when it comes to voters’ views on the NHS. This is interesting given that the Prime Minister has made the NHS one of his big three priorities – and suggests that either Labour or Conservatives strategists have misread public sentiment.

There is more to come on health and social care. Today John McDonnell will address Conference, during which he’ll unveil ‘personal care’ support for the over-65s, to be funded by general taxation. Then on Wednesday, Jeremy Corbyn will bring things to a close, with a speech that is anticipated to include a bold commitment on accessing new medicines.