David Cameron's general election pledge not to cut spending on the NHS has been broken, the Conservative Party conceded for the first time yesterday, as new figures revealed the health service is on the brink of a winter crisis.
The Tories changed their website late on Friday evening to amend their totemic pledge after the official statistics watchdog rebuked the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, for claiming that NHS spending has risen since coming into government in 2010.
The change in wording marked the first concession by the Conservatives that spending was cut in real terms in 2010/11, the first year of the coalition, after a bitter battle with the Labour Party. It came amid Department of Health figures which showed that the number of patients waiting more than half an hour in ambulances outside hospital accident and emergency departments has doubled in the past two years.
Between this 9 November and 2 December, there were 20,018 "ambulance queues" – where patients are held outside A&E for longer than half an hour – against 14,281 over the same period in 2011 and 11,515 in 2010.
Analysis also revealed that, since this April, once patients arrived at A&E, half a million waited more than four hours to be admitted, transferred to another ward or discharged, compared with 432,000 in the same eight-month period in 2011. If the trend continues, the figures suggest a build-up of patients in hospitals that could tip the NHS into a winter crisis, Labour warned. It blamed the waiting times on the axing of 7,000 nursing jobs and hospitals battling to implement the reorganisation of the NHS, with 16 per cent of hospitals understaffed.
This week, Labour's health spokesman, Andy Burnham, will call a Commons debate on NHS spending after the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot, put pressure on the Government in last week's ruling. In a letter to Mr Hunt last Tuesday, Mr Dilnot ruled that "expenditure on the NHS in real terms was lower in 2011-12 than it was in 2009-10".
The Conservative Party website until Friday evening read: "We have increased the NHS budget in real terms in each of the last two years." Yet by yesterday morning the wording had been changed, with an admission that spending did not increase between 2009/10 and 2010/11: "We have increased NHS spending in real terms since 2010-11 and will continue doing so."
In one of the most memorable poster campaigns of the 2010 election, an airbrushed Mr Cameron was pictured alongside the slogan, "We can't go on like this. I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS". The Tory party election manifesto pledged to "increase health spending in real terms every year".
The claim has been repeated in government by the Prime Minister and by his two health secretaries. In June, Mr Cameron told the Commons: "The money in the NHS is being increased," while, in October, Mr Hunt said: "Real-terms spending on the NHS has increased across the country."
Treasury figures showed NHS spending in 2009/10 was £99.8bn, in 2010/11 it was £102bn, and in 2011/12 £104.3bn. But once inflation is taken into account, the figures are, based on 2011/12 prices, £105.1bn in 2009/10; £104.4bn in 2010/11 – a fall of 0.6 per cent; and £104.3bn in 2011/12, a further fall of 0.1 per cent. Although the falls are tiny percentages, they amount to £800m.
Despite Mr Dilnot's ruling, Mr Cameron said at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday: "We have taken that figure in 2010, we have increased it in 2011 and we will increase it every year of this parliament."
Mr Burnham urged the Tories to admit to the real-terms cut in 2011/12, too. He added: "Finally, he's been forced to admit it: David Cameron has cut the NHS. The personal pledge that defined his leadership of the Conservative Party has been broken....
"For months, ministers have made false boasts about NHS spending.... Now, in the dead of night, they sneak out a change to the Tory party website." He added that Mr Hunt must "take urgent action to protect the NHS front line from his government's cuts. Over 7,000 nursing jobs have been lost.... If the NHS is to get safely through the winter, [he] must step in to stop the job losses."
A spokeswoman for Mr Hunt said the website wording had been correct because it used the word "budget", which had increased in 2011/12 and 2012/13, but that the wording had been changed in accordance with the Dilnot ruling. She added spending had not gone up in 2010/11 because the budget had already been set by the Labour government. "We are committed to spending going up," she said.