NHS is missing key targets, says Labour

Opposition launches first election salvo, citing failures on ambulances, A&E and cancer treatment, while Conservatives hit back at 'errors', saying claims of staffing and funding reductions are wrong

Labour has kicked off its general election campaign with a damning dossier showing that the NHS has missed half of its patient waiting time pledges in the past year.

Andy Burnham, the shadow Health Secretary, warned that the coalition faces its "day of reckoning" at the polls in May, after Labour compiled evidence showing that seven out of 15 patient rights in the NHS constitution have been breached over the past 12 months.

Failures include not getting enough ambulances to people within eight minutes; 74 consecutive weeks of missing the A&E waiting-time target; and more than 15 per cent of cancer patients not getting their first treatment within two months of diagnosis.

Labour wants to fight the election over the NHS, which it believes has become a one of the electorate's top three priorities as the service has stumbled from crisis to crisis.

 

The Tories hit back at the 27-page document, identifying what it claims are five mistakes. These included a claim that there were 9,000 fewer frontline NHS staff than in 2010, which the Tories rebutted with statistics showing there are 10,319 more professionally qualified clinical staff and nurses than five years ago. The Tories also rejected claims that they haven't properly funded the NHS, pointing out that spending has increased by £13bn a year since 2010.

The Tories illustrated their own intention to focus voters' minds on the economy, which is slowly recovering after the financial crisis that broke during Gordon Brown's premiership. A Tory spokesman commented: "Ed Miliband has no economic plan and so would put the entire NHS at risk."

The clash occurred after David Cameron fired what was described as "the starting gun" for the election with the party's first campaign poster on Friday. However, even right-wing commentators criticised the poster's claim that the deficit had halved under Mr Cameron's watch.

But the Labour dossier, which aides described as an "NHS attack operation", marks the first major clash of the campaign. Mr Burnham, who will lay out Labour's own plans for NHS reform at the end of the month, said five more years of Conservative-led government would see the NHS "subsumed by a toxic mix of cuts and privatisation".

Mr Burnham claims that the NHS will have to rapidly increase the share of privately funded healthcare if the Conservatives retain power. He believes this is inevitable if the Tories were to carry out the savage public spending cuts unveiled in last month's Autumn Statement.

George Osborne, the Chancellor, plans to reduce public spending as a proportion of GDP to just 35 per cent by 2019, the lowest level since the 1930s, in an effort to rebalance the country's books. The Labour dossier claims that countries with a similarly low proportion of public spending, such as Australia and Switzerland, make use of twice as much private-sector funding than the UK in their health services.

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Labour launches its poster campaign to save the NHS

"Wherever you look, there is evidence of a service in increasing distress," said Mr Burnham, who also believes the NHS's struggles will hit the Liberal Democrat vote. "The NHS is very definitely on the ballot paper. The seventh of May is going to be Cameron and [Nick] Clegg's day of reckoning on the NHS."

Labour claims that the Osborne cuts, coupled with coalition legislation that opened up some NHS services to competition, will result in around £10bn of the NHS budget being spent on private providers by 2020, unless Labour comes to power. Formally launching the document today, election strategist Douglas Alexander will say a Tory victory would ensure that "competition is put before patient care".

Even if Labour wins, Mr Burnham believes it would take a decade to restore NHS fortunes. His major idea is to integrate social and healthcare, which he believes would see more people treated early, in their own homes, and at a lower cost.

Labour is launching what it describes as a "four-month campaign to save the NHS", after health professionals across the service warned of a deterioration in both the morale of staff and the quality of services.

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Dr Mark Porter, chair of the British Medical Association council, said waiting times for some treatments had reached "unacceptable" levels. He added that access to some services, including knee and hip operations, was increasingly restricted, and queues at both A&E and GP surgeries had grown.

"The NHS needs more than party-political promises to survive," he said. "It needs sustainable investment to ensure that there are enough staff and resources to meet rising demand and provide the best quality care for patients." He said changes to the NHS "pursued by successive governments", including increased privatisation, were "eroding the core principles of our healthcare systems".

Dr Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said "the past few years" had been "difficult" for nurses and for the NHS. He said too many parts of the system were currently in a "permanent state of crisis", amid "worrying signs" of patients beginning to see poorer quality services.

The RCN welcomed Labour's pledge to recruit 20,000 more nurses into the NHS, but Dr Carter also warned that the "fundamental issue" facing the NHS was resourcing. "The UK spends less on healthcare provision than many other developed countries and this situation is not sustainable," he said. "The future of the NHS depends on it being given adequate investment – whoever forms the next government must recognise this inescapable truth."

The Prime Minister and Mr Miliband are both looking to build momentum over the next few days. Buoyed by news that the party will be able to outspend Labour by three to one during the campaign, Mr Cameron is interviewed by both the BBC and a national newspaper today.

Mr Miliband will make a speech in Manchester tomorrow focusing on the NHS – one of the five pledges that Labour's campaign will be built around; the others include curbing immigration, raising living standards, the future of young people, and tackling the deficit.

Mr Miliband will seek to build on the news that Labour has a narrow, 1 per cent lead over the Conservatives, according to pollsters at Opinium.

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