Health service will be key UK election battleground

The Labour party is looking to make the future of the National Health Service a key battleground ahead of the UK general election in May this year.

Ed Miliband’s opposition Labour party is trying to regain power in the 7 May general election, and is targeting the traditional distrust among voters of the Conservative party in relation to the tax-funded national health service (NHS).

In contrast, the Conservatives, who currently hold power in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, are often more trusted in their handling of the economy.

However a survey commissioned by consultancy firm Incisive Health a week ago found that the Conservative party leader and prime minister David Cameron was more trusted than Ed Miliband.

The survey conducted by ComRes found 22 per cent named Cameron as the most trusted on the NHS, compared to 20 for the Labour leader.

The poor showing for Labour is a reflection of Miliband’s lack of credibility among voters, and is especially worrying on a policy area meant to be the party’s ace card.

The party has launched a dossier which claims that seven out of the 15 patients’ rights enshrined in the NHS constitution have been breached, including those setting maximum waiting times of four hours at Accident & Emergency, 62 days for cancer treatment, and six weeks for diagnostic tests.

Privatisation and funding fears

Labour hope to regain the lead in the polls with its new campaign, which emphasises growing numbers of NHS hospitals failing to meet clinical performance targets.

Many voters are also concerned about growing private sector involvement in the NHS, and Labour say they will repeal the health reforms which have accelerated this process.

Launched at the weekend, its new campaign warns that “the NHS as you know it cannot survive a second term of Tory-led government.”

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has pledged to create a £2.5 billion a year NHS Time to Care Fund which would create 20,000 more nurse posts, 8,000 more GPs and 5,000 more home care workers.

The Conservatives have hit back, disputing Labour’s figures and claiming Miliband’s lack of an economic plan “would put the entire NHS at risk.”

Talking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Mr Cameron, who described himself as a “compassionate Conservative”, said: “We’ve said very clearly we’ll protect the NHS – it’s very precious to me, it’s very precious to Britain.

“It’s a great institution that we should be enhancing and not undermining.”

As whoever wins the election will be restricted by a weak economy and the need to limit public spending, the parties have all been cautious in their spending plans for the NHS.

However health service leaders in England are warning the parties that billions more in funding are needed over the next five years to keep it afloat.

The alliance of health service leaders in England, led by NHS England’s Simon Stevens, says that without extra funding the NHS faces an annual £30bn shortfall by 2020.

All the main political parties have agreed with this plan in principle, called the Five Year Forward View, but none have yet matched exactly the funding commitments that the health service leaders have said are necessary.

Simon Stevens has just reiterated his call for more money, telling the Financial Times that the NHS needs to avoid a ‘boom-bust’ approach to funding.

Other key Labour policies include a guaranteed GP appointment within 48 hours, and on the same day for those who need it, and a guaranteed a maximum one-week wait for cancer tests.

In these areas, many of the policies from the different parties are not radically different. For the pharmaceutical industry, the Conservatives have pledged long-term support for the Cancer Drugs Fund – but are already in the process of making funding through the route more difficult to obtain. Labour has pledged to replace the CDF with a proposed Cancer Treatments Fund, which would widen the special budget, adding radiotherapy and surgery to the drugs fund.

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