HEALTH Secretary Jeremy Hunt was challenged to end the Tories’ NHS England cash freeze yesterday after he was warned it faces meltdown due to a looming £30 billion-a-year hole.
In Westminster Labour shadow minister Andy Burnham pummelled his Tory counterpart at the dispatch box following the release of a five-year blueprint by NHS organisations which warned that “efficiency” savings alone would not be enough.
A grinning Mr Hunt labelled the report “essentially positive and optimistic” but brushed off calls to invest more cash.
Mr Burnham, whose party has pledged a £2.5bn-a-year above-inflation funding rise, retorted: “The report could not be clearer — simply protecting the NHS budget in the next Parliament as the Conservatives propose will not prevent it tipping into a full-blown crisis.”
The joint report by six bodies, including watchdogs Monitor and the Care Quality Commission and NHS England itself, speculates that new technology, restructured community services and better public education could make the service “more productive” and reduce a projected £30bn annual funding shortfall.
It set out sweeping plans for GP practices to hire hospital doctors, to allow hospitals to provide GP services to plug gaps, to merge the back-office functions of smaller facilities, and to encourage bigger hospitals to open franchises in smaller ones.
But even the most optimistic estimates set out in their “forward view” would leave a £16bn-a-year gap if the government continues its planned real-terms budget freeze.
And trade union Unite head of health Rachael Maskell said that the real picture would be worse because the plan’s cash-saving goals simply could not be achieved in time.
The service is already struggling with existing demands for annual “efficiency” savings that have seen £20bn drained from budgets since 2010, she said.
And she warned the NHS plan “will be impossible to deliver in five years if you are talking about a real improvement in health prevention, retraining and realigning the roles of NHS staff, together with integration of health and social care.
“The best investment that the government could make in the NHS is the immediate scrapping of the Health and Social Care Act which has already squandered £3bn in a pointless reorganisation.”
The NHS blueprint states that continuing current inflation-only budget rises would lead to a massive black hole even if the service succeeded in finding more ways to cut costs.
It predicts a £21bn annual shortfall if the current “efficiency” drive to find 0.8 per cent savings a year continued and funding remained in line with inflation. That gap could narrow to £16bn if savings increased to 1.5 per cent a year and the budget remained flat.
But NHS England would only meet costs by 2020-21 if a hugely ambitious 2-3 per cent annual cost-saving target totalling £22bn was met and real-terms funding rose by £8bn a year.
National Health Action Party co-leader Dr Clive Peedell, who will contest PM David Cameron’s seat next May, said no mainstream party was doing enough.
Dr Peedell added that the NHS plan also “totally ignored the grotesque financial waste that is draining billions from front-line care in our NHS — wasteful internal markets, commissioning support units, management consultancy fees, the cost of procurement of clinical services, profit-taking by private providers, the cost of fragmenting pathways due to outsourcing components to private contractors, and PFI deals bankrupting our hospitals.”