Election Day 2019: Where do the two frontrunners stand on the NHS?

pharmafile | December 12, 2019 | News story | Business Services Boris, Boris Johnson, Corbyn NHS, Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, NHS 

The UK goes to the polls today, for the fourth election of the decade and the third since 2015.

Despite the election being initially called by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to break the parliamentary gridlock over Brexit, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has forced the main electoral issue to centre around the future of the National Health Service. Both have made significantly different proposals for the NHS’s future.

The last decade has seen the increasing privatisation of the NHS by successive Conservative governments, while it also faced several budget cuts and severe staff shortages. The value of contracts given to non-NHS providers, mostly private firms and corporations, has increased by 89% from £1.9billion to £3.6 billion. Over the past five years they have been handed £15 billion in these contracts, with Richard Branson’s Virgin Care benefitting the most.

The photo of four year old Jack Williment-Barr, who was forced to sleep on a hospital floor as he waited in A&E, sparked outrage this week. To many, it symbolises what the NHS has become after suffering through a decade of Conservative cuts.

Boris Johnson and the Conservatives promises on the NHS

The Conservatives have pledged that 50,000 extra nurses will be recruited, 50 million extra GP appointments will happen per year as well as pledging £34 billion extra funding for the NHS, while improving 20 and creating 40 new hospitals.

Due to the Conservatives dominance in UK politics over the last decade, and their control on the government, it is much easier to compare their record against their campaign promises.The Nuffield Trust has suggested that the ‘£34 billion’ will partly be funded by savings the hospitals have been required to deliver. These savings have been accumulated through the NHS clamping down on the amount it spends on things like  food and drink.

There is also scepticism of the 40 hospitals claim. Initially announced back in September, their campaign promise only guarantees the full 40 if the Conservatives win this and the next election. In the next five years they will only be able to deliver six new buildings or refurbishments.

Johnson and the Conservatives pledge to recruit 50,000 new nurses, and part of the strategy is to bring back bursaries for nurses pursuing their qualifications. However the Conservative Government ended these bursaries in 2016, despite warnings from the NHS that this would be detrimental to the recruitment and retention of nurses. This caused the number of people applying to study nursing to fall by over 13,000 in England.

Another promise Johnson and the Conservatives have made is that the NHS will not be ‘for sale’. This became an issue after the American Ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, told Andrew Marr that the ‘entire’ British economy would be on the table in a trade deal between the US-UK, and this included healthcare. This was also repeated by President Donald Trump, who later backtracked.

However recent evidence has come to light that the NHS being state-run would be under threat by a trade deal. Last month Global Justice Now discovered that, in August 2018, George Hollingberg, the former Trade Minister, and John Saville, HM Consul General, met Bill Reid who is a Senior Director at Eli Lilly. The minutes of the meeting showed Reid was aiming for greater market access in the UK as well as longer patents for their drugs to allow them to charge higher drug prices.

During this election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn revealed secret government documents from 2017, which showed the US was pushing the UK Government into a hard Brexit. In terms of the NHS specifically, they wanted to negotiate sweeping liberalisation to make the NHS more open to US drug companies. US officials also stated they felt that the UK does not pay enough for drugs and changes to their pricing policy must be included in a trade deal.

There have been constant reassurances from Boris Johnson, the Conservatives and even Donald Trump, that the NHS would not be ‘for sale’ to the US in a trade deal. However Foreign Secretary Dominac Rabb did admit that the US will be able to ramp up the costs of drugs bought by the NHS after Brexit.

Andrew Hill, a drug pricing expert and adviser to the World Health Organisation, said that annual NHS drug bill would rise by £27 billion, to £45 billion, if it paid US drug prices, and that America’s goal is to ‘attack regulations’ that control British drug prices. This will of course drastically increase the money the NHS needs. It already requires investment to keep up with increasing use from a growing and ageing population, and its potential new expenses could be used to justify increased privatisation.

Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s plan for revitalising the NHS

It is of course easier to scrutinise the campaign promises of a party that have been in the government since May 2010. Corbyn has not yet served in a cabinet, and even past Labour actions during Brown and Blair’s governments do not really taint him, since Jeremy Corbyn has always been at odds with that particular faction of the party.

In their manifesto and on the campaign, Corbyn and Labour have pledged to “end and reverse” privatisation in the NHS. This includes banning the sale of NHS land and assets and taking all private finance initiative (PFI) contracts back into public ownership. While PFI was part of changes to the NHS made under Tony Blair, it is safe to assume Corbyn does not share Blair’s general economic views, and leans more towards the state running services.

In terms of funding, Labour is promising to give the NHS in England £26 billion by 2023-2024. It also plans to increase the budget of both the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care by 4.3% every year, higher than the Lib Dem and Tory plans.

Labour also pledged to introduce a National Care Service, something similar to the one that already exists in Scotland. This would provide free personal care for older people who need help with daily tasks. They want to improve funding in this area and support local authorities to directly provide care, rather than outsource it.

In terms of addressing the shortage of staff, Labour has pledged an immediate five per cent pay rise and real-term pay rises every year. They also want to recruit 4,500 more health visitors and school nurses, bring back bursaries for nurses and midwives while expanding training places for GPs.

Labour has also pledged to establish a state-run generic drug company. They believe certain drugs are held to ransom by corporations charging extortionate prices for life-saving medicine. They state in their manifesto that: “If fair prices are rejected for patented drugs will use the Patents Act provisions, compulsory licences and research exemptions to secure access to generic versions, and we will aim to increase the number of pharmaceutical jobs in the UK.”

It is not surprising that even some Blairites have come out with criticisms of policy, with a former health Minister under Gordon Brown, Baron Ara Darzi, saying that: “Such a move would threaten the entire pharmaceutical industry.”

Labour’s promises are in stark contrast to the Conservatives negotiations with the United States, and their increasing privatisation of the NHS. It is clear Corbyn and Labour’s plans are designed to put more control in the hands of the state to reduce the exploitative practices of private pharmaceutical corporations.

On the fate of the NHS specifically, the British electorate have possibly never faced a choice between the two major parites where the fate of the NHS, as it exists currently, hangs in the balance.

Despite the promises to invest in the NHS and not ‘sell it off’, it is clear the Conservatives are pushing it towards a model that is more like the system currently being used in the US. Labour is trying to bring back the NHS to its state-run roots, while expanding its offerings with things like the National Social Care service.

The NHS is one of the most popular government institutions since its founding in 1948 by Clement Atlee’s Labour government. So much so, it featured prominently in the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. It has become the top issue of the election and its future will be extremely different depending on who is the next Prime Minister.

Conor Kavanagh

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