Labour’s plans will help sink health service, not save it

Keir Starmer’s talk of ‘reform’ rather than resources is a coded call for a further expansion of the private sector in the NHS, writes Yuri Prasad

Tuesday 23 May 2023

Issue 2856

NHS Labour Starmer health service

Labour leader Keir Starmer doesn’t really want to save the NHS (Picture: Chatham House)

Labour leader Keir Starmer took to the back of an Essex ambulance this week to launch his new policies for the NHS. He said that a government under his leadership would get the health service “off its knees” with a series of “reforms”—and just a modest increase in funding.

Labour says it will get cancer and A&E waiting times down, and the massive backlog of people waiting for treatment will be tackled. But a close ­examination of Starmer’s plans makes it clear that the cancer of privatisation is going to spread, and so is the draining effect of understaffing.

Labour’s demand for yet more NHS reform is code for allowing private hospitals to treat more NHS patients. But far from dealing with the problem, the private sector makes everything worse.

Under this system, doctors ­working part-time in the health service are incentivised to create a backlog so that their ­private ­practices can flourish. Patients will doubtless be ­astonished to find that when the health service refers them to a private hospital, the same doctor that could not yet treat them on the NHS can treat them privately.

And, it’s not just doctors that are leached away. Nurses and therapists that could be working in NHS theatres, wards and communities are instead pulled into the private sector. In private hospitals they will care for a few wealthy patients—and those who’ve maxed out their credit cards—to bypass the ­waiting lists. 

Instead of making that crisis worse, Labour should have demanded that all clinical staff trained here at public expense be contracted to work full time for the NHS.

A chronic lack of staff is at the centre of the NHS crisis. There are currently at least 40,000 nursing vacancies—leaving a gaping hole in the expected 360,000 full time roles. Labour’s pledge to recruit and train 10,000 new nurses and ­midwives a year is, at best, anaemic.

Last year more than 27,000 left the profession, up 13 percent more than the year before. Retirement was certainly the main factor—more than four in ten cited this. But two in ten blamed too much pressure.

Much as Labour wants to ­reassure the markets that it won’t be ­“getting out the big chequebook” for the NHS, money is behind the crisis.

According to the Health Foundation think tank, Britain spent £40 billion less each year than comparative European countries over the decade before Covid. Labour’s plans are little more than a fake herbal remedy for an NHS that needs a massive injection of cash.

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