THE FUTURE OF THE NHS – Gwynne writes for Politics First

NHS signThe NHS has dominated political debate in recent years.

Voters have consistently ranked it as one of the most important ‘issues’ facing our country.

And this interest, or concern, in our nation’s most loved institution, shows no signs of going away.

In the weeks and months leading up to the General Election David Cameron made a series of increasingly desperate promises on the NHS.

They ranged from repeating promises made before the 2010 election on 7-day access (which raised the question – if you promised it last time and failed to deliver why should anyone believe you this time?) to promising extra money without identifying where a single penny of it would come from.

Many of these announcements were designed to ‘neutralise’ the NHS as a political issue, or in the words of one senior Tory to ‘shoot Labour’s fox’.

Just weeks after the election key manifesto commitments, such as the introduction of a cap on the costs of elderly care, were dropped and other manifesto commitments now look set to be broken with the future of the Cancer Drugs Fund in doubt and hospitals facing financial crisis.

The danger for David Cameron is that it begins to look like he wasn’t straight with people on the NHS at the election.

Four months on from the General Election and public concern with the NHS remains ever high.

Speak to NHS staff or patients and you’ll soon understand why.

Staff are being told to work longer hours, often for less pay.

Numbers are not keeping pace with demand, with fewer nurses per head of population now than before the 2010 election.

And despite the best efforts of staff, many of whom are working flat out, NHS performance continues to go backwards because of this Government’s mismanagement.

The waiting list is now at a 7-year high, and the cancer treatment target is now being missed regularly, prompting concerns from experts like Cancer Research UK that patients are failed.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get a GP appointment, with more than one in four people now waiting a week or more to see a GP. This in turn is putting pressure on already overstretched A&E departments.

Funding for mental health services continues to fall, despite Minister’s promising otherwise, and social care services remain in crisis.

Rather than take practical steps to deal with these pressures, the Government’s response has been to change the way that performance data is reported and published.

So from August, all the bad performance data is now released on the same day each month, in the hope that it will minimise the negative headlines.

It’s a cynical attempt at news management from a Tory Government that knows the NHS is going backwards on their watch.

It also shreds Tory claims to be committed to transparency in the NHS. But, after all, this is the Government that refused to publish the risk assessment of their NHS reorganisation, ignoring a clear legal ruling from the Information Commissioner.

The challenge facing the Government over the next five years is how to get the NHS back on track when they are asking it to make unprecedented efficiency savings.

The former Minister for Care and Support recently said achieving the Government’s £22bn worth of efficiency savings will be “virtually impossible”.

The danger is that the only way to achieve these savings will be to cut frontline services, which could put patient care at risk and see service standards deteriorate even further.

Ministers have already refused to rule out staff cuts as part of their plan to save £22bn, and worryingly NICE was recently asked to suspend safe staffing programme, despite that being a key recommendation of the Francis report.

If the Government cannot find a way to turn things around then the political debate over the next five years will continue to be dominated by the performance of our health service.

It will be the job of the Labour Party over the next five years to hold the Government to account on their election promises, and continue to be a strong voice for the patients and staff who are paying the price for the Tories’ mismanagement of the NHS.

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