Yes, ironic though it may seem, the good old National Health Service is ill – very ill. Since 1948, this mammoth organisation – the largest single employer in the UK and the best health service in the world – has provided care to the injured and the ill of this country. It’s not been perfect, and we grumble, groan and complain about it like true Britons – but let’s be honest, none of us would want to see it go.
Unfortunately, we’re looking at that as a very real possibility unless we seriously get our act together. The Coalition insist again and again that the NHS has been ringfenced from austerity (as well they might – the NHS has been described as England’s national religion and surveys show that 71% want to see increased, not reduced, funding) but they are lying through their teeth. What they actually mean is that NHS spending has not been cut, and it hasn’t – but the NHS, in order to function, needs more money every year.
The reason for this is pretty obvious – every year there are more people to treat, with the average age going up and diseases like heart disease, HIV and cancer steadily growing. There are also more and newer medicines to buy and new technologies to use – things which the public expect the NHS to have and have to be paid for, often at exorbitantly high prices due to the unscrupulous and predatory nature of the pharmaceutical industry…..but that’s a topic for another time.
The point is, between 1950 and 2010 NHS spending increased by an average of 4% per year. This was necessary to keep up with increasing pressures on the service. Since 2010, however, the increase has been slashed – to just 0.5% per year. This is, quite simply, unsustainable. At that paltry rate of increase, the NHS will crash and burn within a few years.
There are basically three ways the current funding situation can be assuaged:
- Cut Spending Elsewhere: A typical Tory idea, this just cannot happen. The deficit in health spending over the last four years now stands at £16 billion, and will rise to £34 billion by 2018 if current spending trends do not change. Not only would such cuts to other departments be devastating, they are just not possible: The Tory-led coalition, as ideologically committed to spending cuts as it is possible for a government to be, spent £85 billion more this year than Labour did in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis. If even the Cameron/Osborne/Duncan-Smith trinity can’t slash spending in four years of government, it can’t be done
- Introduce Patient Charges: This won’t happen. The Royal College of Nursing has suggested the introduction of £10 charges to see your GP, but the Department of Health has come out and said this is not on the table – “We are absolutely clear that the NHS should be free at the point of use, and we will not charge for GP appointments.” It would be electoral suicide for Labour to go against the Tories on this, so it’s not even an option
- Raise Taxes: Always a scary prospect for any government, this is nonetheless the only way forward. Labour’s Frank Field has proposed a 1% increase in National Insurance, but the Labour leadership – having made much of the ‘cost of living crisis’ in their propaganda output – is reluctant to go ahead with this. However, as mentioned above the public are overwhelmingly in favour of an increase in NHS spending, so National Insurance is probably the one general tax they could get away with raising