George Osborne said it was conceivable the Conservative party could spend an extra £8bn yearly on the NHS by the end of the next parliament. The party’s official policy is to ringfence health spending rather than increase it.
The chancellor said recommendations in a newly published five-year plan for NHS England involved “funding on a scale that is possible to conceive our country managing”.
Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, signalled in his plan that the service could find £22bn annually through productivity gains and improvements in illness prevention to help close its £30bn funding gap. But he said the service would require an extra £8bn from government.
None of the three parties has come close to promising this sort of funding increase.
The Conservatives have promised to keep the current ringfence of spending, while Labour has said it will increase spending by £2bn and the Liberal Democrats by £1bn.
Any extra spending commitments to the NHS would have a significant impact on the government’s deficit reduction plans.
David Cameron has already promised a £7.2bn tax cut for the end of next parliament without yet outlining how he would fund it.
NHS funding is set to be a dominant theme of campaigning before May’s general election. Labour plans to focus on the NHS in their campaign: voters say it is one of their biggest concerns and it is one of the few areas where the party has a poll lead. The Conservatives hope, at best, to neutralise the issue.
Mr Osborne’s remarks came as Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, sought to score political points after the report was published, accusing the Tories of mishandling the health service.
“The report could not be clearer: simply protecting the NHS budget in the next parliament, as the Conservatives propose, will not prevent it from tipping into a full-blown crisis,” Mr Burnham told the House of Commons.
Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative health secretary, suggested that he and his opposite number spend less time “pretending there are vast disagreements” about the health service between the two parties and engage in a more sensible debate about its future.
“You have been constantly telling this House that the NHS is on the point of collapse but the chief executive of NHS England says that the NHS has been remarkably successful in weathering the pressures of recent years,” Mr Hunt said.
“You have told this House constantly that the biggest threat to the NHS is privatisation and competition and here we are, in this report, a five-year forward view by arm’s-length bodies of the government, not one single mention of competition and privatisation as a threat and yet this is a report that you say endorses Labour’s plans.”
Labour has promised to repeal the competition elements of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, the legislation underpinning the reorganisation of the NHS, to allow for greater local provision of services and increased private sector involvement.
Mr Burnham noted that Mr Stevens’s report did “not give one mention to competition. Not one.
“That’s because it creates fragmentation when the future demands integration. So will you commit now to review your competition rules and vote with Labour in four weeks’ time to repeal them?” he asked Mr Hunt.
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