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News Election Watch

NHS becomes political football as electioneering kicks off

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: (Published 05 November 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6375

Read our coverage of the general election 2019

  1. Abi Rimmer,
  2. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

The UK election season kicked off last weekend amid what is already shaping up to be a hard fought match between the country’s two bitterest rivals. Almost immediately, NHS leaders called on politicians not to use the NHS as a “political football”—a familiar call during UK general elections.

But when the whistle blew, Labour immediately went on the attack against the Conservatives by revealing the results of a freedom of information request that they said showed a big increase in the number of cancelled operations. Between April 2018 and March 2019 a total of 78 981 elective and urgent operations in England were cancelled, the data showed—less than in 2017-18 (81 565) but more than in 2016-17 (74 170). Staffing problems and equipment failures were responsible for more than 15 000 cancelled operations last year, Labour said.

Perhaps sensing an open goal, Labour’s shadow health and social care secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said, “The simple truth is, under the Tories, patients wait longer and longer for vital care. This general election is about the future of the NHS and ensuring quality care for all.”

Ashworth said that Labour would fully fund the NHS, recruit the doctors and nurses it needs, and safeguard the NHS from a “Trump deal sell off” that could cost the NHS £500m a week.”1

Commenting on the findings, BMA council chair Chaand Nagpaul said, “We need to see investment and extra resources across the entire health service to avoid more patients being denied the care that they need.”

After being under pressure in the opening exchanges, the health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, sought to turn defence into attack, taking to Twitter to rebut Labour’s claims, which he described as “exactly the sort of irresponsible scaremongering doctors [are] complaining about.”2 He said that the number of cancelled operations was down and that 90% of those that were cancelled were rebooked within 28 days. “Labour are spreading this nonsense because they have nothing positive to say,” Hancock said.

New hospitals

The government tried to get on the front foot on 3 November when Boris Johnson said in an interview with Sky News that the Tories would build 40 new hospitals.3 “We’re beginning with six, and 20 hospital upgrades,” Johnson said. He said that the remaining 34 hospitals would be built in the next 10 years.

But Ashworth said that Johnson was “again trying to mislead people by saying his government will build new hospitals when this claim has been proven to be false.” He added, “It is also laughable for him to say he wants to bring down GP waiting times when under the Conservatives we’re seeing the first sustained fall in GP numbers for 50 years. You can’t trust a word Boris Johnson says, and you can’t trust the Tories with the NHS.”

Referees’ warning

With the contest heating up, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, and Carrie MacEwen, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, stepped in to referee and issue a yellow card to both sides.

Writing in the Times, MacEwen said that although promises to save the NHS were “guaranteed vote bait” it was not right for politicians to use it.4 “The NHS’s role is to manage the health of the nation, not to be used as a tool to swing voters in a three way marginal,” MacEwen said. She warned that using the NHS in a bid to win the election could subject it to “irrational, undeliverable promises or even outright lies.”

Also writing in the Times, Hopson said that a “bidding war between the main parties as to who is the best friend of the NHS” had already begun.5 “This may be expressed in competing commitments to increased NHS budgets,” he said. “But voters beware. The NHS has, in the past, been a serial victim of politicians slicing and dicing funding numbers and making empty promises that were never actually delivered.”

As yet there haven’t been any calls for a VAR (video assistant referee6) on the campaign trail, but in these unprecedented political times we can’t rule anything out.


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