Future of the NHS is number one issue – but will it swing the election?

As the UK’s election day draws near, The Labour party is winning the battle to convince voters that its policies for the national health service (NHS) are best – but the governing Conservative party is seen as most competent on the economy.

A new poll from Ipsos MORI conducted last week showed that 47 per cent of those interviewed said the NHS was important to them, making it far and away the most important issue overall, a rise of nine per cent since March.

Of the 1,000 adults interviewed, 36 per cent said Labour had the best policies, a full 13 points ahead of the Conservatives on 23 per cent, the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) on six per cent and UK Independence Party (UKIP) on three per cent.

Managing the economy/economic situation was judged the second most important issue, with 35 per cent judging it to be ‘very important’ to their vote, and here 41 per cent rated the Conservatives’ policies the best, well ahead of Labour on 23 per cent.

This split reflects an overall polling which suggests that the UK is heading for a hung parliament, with neither the Conservatives nor Labour able to form a government without forming a coalition or doing a deal with a smaller party.

The general election is just 15 days away, and the parties have all launched their election manifestos, which makes any new ‘game changing’ policy announcements increasingly unlikely.

NHS funding crisis

The biggest single issue for the NHS is undoubtedly its long-term funding, with a wide range of experts warning that the health service is facing a major financial crisis, which is already beginning to affect patient care.

The key ‘roadmap’ for the NHS, the Five Year Forward View was laid out by Simon Stevens, head of NHS England last October. Stevens warned that, without action, the NHS faced a £30 billion shortfall in funding, but said with co-ordinated reform, the health service could achieve £22 billion.

This left an £8 billion-a-year sum which Stevens called on politicians to find, and now the Conservatives and the Lib Dem parties have both pledged to meet. However while the Lib Dems have provided detailed costing of their spending, the Tories have refused to say how they will find the funds.

Ironically, given its high trust levels among voters regarding the NHS, Labour had not committed to this figure; it has instead committed itself to just £2.5 billion extra each year for the first two years of the parliament.

Labour believes the funding shortfall could be smaller than the £22 billion figure, with shadow health secretary Andy Burnham saying its plans to create more integrated care will help create savings.

The party’s reticence on funding also reflects its need to not look fiscally reckless, the central charge used by the Conservatives against it following the economic crisis which occurred in its term of office.

Head-to-head debate

Today sees the head-to-head debate between the leading parties. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt will be defending his record over the last five years, and promising seven-day access to GPs by 2020, and same-day appointments for the over-75s when needed.

Labour’s Andy Burnham will be putting forward his party’s plan, which includes recruiting 3,000 extra midwives and 8,000 extra GPs.

Norman Lamb, who has also served in the coalition government as a health and social care minister will be putting the case for the Lib Dems, who have pledged an extra £3.5 billion for mental health.

Julia Reid, of UKIP, will be putting forward her party’s policies, which includes an extra £3 billion a year for the NHS by 2020 to fund more nurses, GPs and midwives, as well as £200 million to scrap hospital car parking charges.

Apart from some relatively minor variations, what is remarkable about these policies is their similarities – even the ‘wildcard’ political party UKIP has backed the tax-funded ‘free at the point of service’ NHS, something which is seen as virtually unchallengeable in the UK.

Despite this near consensus on the NHS, experts are warning that the scale of the financial crisis in the health service has been underestimated – including Simon Stevens’ call for £8 billion extra. Many warn that a major reckoning must come after the general election, which means the parties are likely to stop short of confronting the hardest issues until after Election Day on 7 May.

Follow the General election 2015 – the health and care debate here.

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