Can Labour save the NHS from its crisis?

Matthew Bowles

January 25, 2023

The National Health Service has historically been worshipped by the vast majority of the general public, attaining a somewhat untouchable status. As data continues to be released this month reporting record long ambulance response times, is it the unlikely Labour Party who are looking most likely to reform the NHS? 

December’s ambulance response times were catastrophically poor at best, life-threatening at worst, across the board. In Wales, the average response time for a “red” life-threatening call was 10 minutes last month, about a minute shorter than the average in England (10 mins 57 secs), but three minutes longer than the targeted response time for such an emergency. 

Things were no better if a citizen was suffering from a Category 2 emergency, potentially a heart attack or a stroke. From the point a call was placed, to the point sirens would be able to be heard, a staggering 90 minutes would have gone by, four and a half times the targeted response time. 

You would think this would trigger a serious conversation about healthcare reform in the United Kingdom, and it has, but from improbable sources.  

Keir Starmer has acknowledged the startling levels of “bureaucratic nonsense” that is in the way of a patient receiving the care and treatment they need. The Labour Party’s solution is for members of the public to self-refer, a credible policy for those seeking care to avoid the, at times patronising gatekeepers, that reside within GP surgeries. 

Compare this with what the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak has to say: the NHS is under “pressure” recovering after the pandemic, but Mr Sunak was unable to say that it was in crisis.  

In the Autumn Statement last year, the Chancellor announced that health spending will increase by £3.3 billion in cash terms over the next two years. This is a small cheese considering public sector expenditure on healthcare was around £200 billion for the year 2021/22.  

This suggests that the penny has not dropped for many senior Conservative politicians. Continuously funnelling cash into the NHS will not improve healthcare indicators. It is only radical reform that is able to improve outcomes. 

The penny has seemingly dropped however for Wes Streeting, Shadow Secretary of State for Health, who has intimated that simply throwing money at the healthcare monolith hasn’t worked. He can be added to a list that includes the former Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, and current Health Secretary, Steve Barclay. 

Streeting has also admitted that he would not “pretend the NHS is the envy of the world” and has suggested the use of the private sector to help bring down waiting lists, something that would ordinarily be considered heretical by the evangelists that worship the national religion. 

Intimations from Starmer and Streeting may not solve the current crisis affecting ambulance response times and also may not be the radical tone needed to attempt emulation of a European social insurance-based system as seen in the Netherlands and Germany that provide far better outcomes than the current system. It is however a huge step for Labour, often seen as the guardians of the NHS. A mildly reassuring thought perhaps, is that a shift of the Overton window is potentially on the cards, even under a Labour government. 


Written by Matthew Bowles

Policy Advisor to the Director General at the Institute of Economic Affairs

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