NHS is pounds 1bn worse off under Labour

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The Independent Online
Labour government policies have left the National Health Service pounds 1bn worse off than it should have been since the election, it was claimed yesterday.

Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrats' NHS spokesman and a former member of the British Medical Association council, will produce figures next month showing that the service has seen real-terms cuts of at least half a billion. Another half billion raised through tax changes should have been channelled back into hospitals and doctors' surgeries but was used for other things, he adds.

Dr Harris also says he has evidence that hospitals are being forced to give priority to non-urgent operations such as breast reductions while patients needing cataract surgery or hip replacements are forced to wait.

He will tell his party's annual conference in Eastbourne next month that measures such as an estimated pounds 214m cut in social services' budgets will impact on the health service. Hospital admissions will rise because people will not receive all the care they need and waiting lists will grow longer because of "bed blocking" by patients with nowhere else to go. The effects could lead to increased costs of around pounds 100m, he believes.

In addition, there will be more emergency admissions to hospitals over the next year, a rise related to the squeeze in other parts of the health service. The number of emergency admissions has already risen tenfold from 4,000 to 45,000 in the 14 months up to June this year, and it is believed this is partly because general practitioners are using accident and emergency departments to get patients into hospital quickly.

The decision by the Chancellor Gordon Brown to shift the inflation forecast upwards from 2 per cent to 2.75 per cent in the Budget would leave health authorities and trusts pounds 350m worse off because they would have to build higher spending into their plans, he says.

Dr Harris argues that the Government could have channelled money into the NHS from pounds 60m clawed back from tax relief on private health insurance and from pounds 350m raised through a 5p tax rise on cigarettes.

Government efforts to cut waiting lists have only served to exacerbate some of the problems, he says. Because hospitals have been told to prioritise patients who have been waiting more than 18 months for surgery, others whose need is greater are waiting longer than they would otherwise have done.

"It means someone somewhere with a cataract is being deprioritised," he said. "Frank Dobson [the Secretary of State for Health] is having a very hard time at the hands of Gordon Brown. It was a political choice he made on every single one of these issues. They weren't committed to any of these things in the manifesto."

A Treasury spokesman said the Government's manifesto had made it clear that departmental spending totals would not be changed. "The Budget did make additional funds of pounds 1.2m available for the health service. This is entirely in accordance with the manifesto commitments, and in any case extra money has been found," the spokesman said.