According to the Red Cross, there is a ‘humanitarian crisis’ occurring in Britain. This is the kind of language reserved for images of poverty in developing countries; children living in squalor; desperate families fleeing conflict. So how did we reach the point where it was being readily used to describe the situation in the National Health Service – one of this country’s finest assets?
Our A&Es are unable to cope with rising demand and reduced capacity. Images are flooding in of patients being left on beds in corridors, with one heart-breaking story of a woman suffering a cardiac arrest following a 35-hour wait to be treated. 42 A&Es have had to divert patients elsewhere owing to their inability to cope with the number of patients seeking treatment. Red Cross volunteers are now being sent into our hospitals to assist the situation. For many, this may seem unexpected. But for those of us on the wards, this is a crisis we have been warning politicians about – our concerns falling on deaf ears.
For Labour, the argument has often been about the need to ‘end privatisation’, ‘return the NHS to full public ownership’ and ‘increase funding’. Making “re-nationalisation” of the NHS our flagship policy, however, is the wrong path to take. Ideological opposition to small levels of private sector involvement will not save the NHS; instead the solution lies in fair and progressive taxation reform and integration of health and social care to build a more efficient system.
The cheap and irresponsible decision to devolve taxation powers for social care to local government, passing the buck on to local councillors, should be opposed by Labour. It was an acknowledgement that more needed to be done to fund social care services, a damning indictment of the Tories’ own failure of patients, but also of their inability to find a solution to it themselves.
The government’s Sustainability and Transformation Plans should also be revealed as the con they are – a cost-cutting exercise driven by a lack of understanding of the true issues facing the NHS. With fewer beds per person than every other country in Europe, now is not the time for centralisation of services and reduction of in-patient capacity.
Labour should argue to reverse these decisions, instead favouring the integration of health and social care funding budgets to allow for a standardised approach across the country, alongside proper investment in acute services and staffing; none of which should be influenced by ideological attitudes from councillors towards council tax levels.
Indeed, the NHS is certainly lacking investment – the Kings Fund estimates that NHS providers and commissioners ended 2015/16 with a £1.85 billion financial deficit. Despite being the world’s 6th biggest economy, we spend just over 8% of GDP on healthcare; 2% lower than the EU average. The IFS estimates that a 1% increase in the rate of income tax could raise an additional £5bn in revenue – the bulk of which should be used to increase in-patient capacity, address staffing shortages, and bolster the social care system to reduce unnecessary or avoidable admissions.
This additional funding should be focussed on improving outcomes over the entire week; challenging the Tories’ incorrect claims of higher mortality rates at weekends. Junior doctors have been proven completely correct about their concerns over staffing levels during the week – the Society of Acute Medicine stating that the UK is currently at ‘third world levels of staffing and third world levels of beds.’
The point, however, is that efficiency doesn’t need to come in the form of budgetary cuts – solutions can be found for this mounting crisis in progressive taxation. Polls consistently indicate substantial support amongst the electorate for small tax increases to allow the NHS to be properly funded. The natural outcome that could be construed from this is a certain expectation of growing popularity for the party championing the saviour of the NHS: Labour.
But if this is the case, why do polls also indicate that the public places more trust in Theresa May – the person ultimately responsible for this humanitarian crisis – than Jeremy Corbyn?
The answer lies in economic credibility. Labour is perceived as the party with noble ideas and principles, but lacking in the competence to implement them in government. In 1997, the ’24 hours to save the NHS’ line proved tremendously popular – but this was only after years of Labour working hard to be taken seriously on the economy. Blair and Brown exposed the Tories economic weaknesses following Black Wednesday. Labour should be doing the same today.
The Tories have broken all of their election promises on the economy. Our failure to seize the economic narrative is ostensibly followed by a lack of belief in any progressive taxation reforms we propose. This is the reputation that plagued us in the 1980s; returning in 2010 and 2015 to cement our position as the opposition party. Even as the NHS crumbles under the pressures it faces, the Conservatives continue to be perceived as the party of economic competence. So long as this continues, our arguments about the collectivist need to properly fund our NHS will be overlooked, and the crisis will continue.
If Labour is truly the party of the NHS, it needs to regain trust on the economy; only through regaining the perception of economic competence can we make the ascent into power in order to provide the NHS with the funding it so desperately needs.