Food and Drink Editor
In the run up to the December General Election, the NHS providers chief, Chris Hopson, has urged party leaders to refrain from using the NHS as a political weapon. Despite this, the NHS has overtaken Brexit as voters’ top priority, and has been deeply entangled in politics since it was founded in 1948. Can we afford to separate the National Health Service from politics, given the country’s current political climate? The underfunding of our health service, alongside the imminent threat of privatisation, are more pivotal than ever, and the future of the NHS is highly dependant on the upcoming vote. The post-Brexit economy will be significantly weaker, partially due to the billions that we have already spent on attempting to push through a deal. Where is the money coming from to make all of these promises a reality? Will the rich be taxed more? Will the vulnerable see losses in community care? Will the education system see cuts? Will GP services be improved at the expense of waiting years to see hospital specialists?
The Commonwealth Fund rates the NHS as the most efficient health service in the world, yet we seem to have reached a point in British politics where it is used as a gambling chip. All parties are making wild claims and promises over its future in order to secure votes only to backtrack when reality hits. During the Brexit campaign in 2016 we saw adverts on buses claiming “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.” Nigel Farage, then leader of UKIP, admitted just hours after the leave victory, that it was a mistake and would not materialise, despite this kind of propaganda being central to the referendum’s outcome.
This year the Conservative government has claimed that they will create 10,000 positions for mental health nurses, yet 1 in 10 nursing posts are currently vacant. The Tories have already binned the nursing bursary, meaning that starting a career in nursing is far more difficult and far less appealing than in previous years. Matt Hancock, secretary of state for health and social care, tweeted earlier this month that Tories will deliver 6,000 more GPs. However, GP numbers are dropping for the first time since the 1960s, and it takes years to become fully trained.
The Tories quick fixes to encourage voters are in reality long processes with goals that they will not manage to meet as promised. Unfortunately, doctors do not grow on trees. What the British public needs and deserves is an honest debate within the constraints of what is feasible for the health service. A shootout between Johnson and Corbyn based on grandiose ideas to one-up each other without any genuine intent to better the health service is counter-productive and immensely unfair on the electorate. However, it has become evident that politicians will not cease to use the NHS as a bargaining chip - it is a vital tool for gaining votes regardless of the legitimacy of manifestos. Transparency in UK politics, as it seems to be in Trump era USA, is no longer expected, if indeed it ever was.
Hopson’s calls to avoid politicising the NHS suggests that the way that we vote does not have an impact on it’s future. As the biggest employer in Europe and the costliest system we have in the country, it has become a deeply political subject. Immigration, an undoubtedly political issue, is persistently blamed for NHS failure (despite evidence showing this is untrue). With tighter immigration rules we will lose invaluable workers, from cleaners to brain surgeons. Non-British employees account for 13.1% of the NHS workforce; without them the NHS could no longer exist.
In an ideal political situation our health service would be stable and effective no matter the political climate or the party in power. But the smooth-running of the health service is dependant on whose hands it falls in and its inclusion in politics today is simply unavoidable. Conservative austerity has resulted in record waiting periods for operations. Fears of Britain adopting the frankly abysmal American health system in the aftermath of Brexit are completely justified as a recent Channel 4 documentary revealed that British trade officials have held numerous unofficial meetings with American pharmaceutical companies to discuss pricing and deals. Privatisation of the health service is already surfacing in England and documents suggesting that the NHS has been part of trade talks between Britain and the US, exposed by Corbyn, confirm that with Boris Johnson’s leadership it is under serious threat of being bought by American corporations. Tom Brake, the shadow Brexit secretary for the Liberal Democrats party, has stated that the public would be “horrified by what looks like a deal cooked up between the Tories and Donald Trump that puts our NHS on the table”. We should not cast our fears aside, but instead do all that we can to ensure that the NHS remains free at the point of use, receiving better funding to ensure that patients are given the highest standard of care regardless of income. The upcoming general election is central to the NHS’ survival. Vote wisely and take politician's promises with a pinch of salt, as the NHS really has become their most treasured weapon.