Public Policy Editor
Nine out of 10 voters would be prepared to pay an extra 2p in the pound in income tax to boost NHS spending, an opinion poll on the National Health Service conducted for the the Independent by the Harris Research Centre has shown.
But despite the political furore over the Government's determination to allow private companies to finance and run NHS units, more than half the supporters of all political parties believe it does not matter whether the NHS is provided by people directly employed by the service, or by private hospitals and doctors. The Conservatives' private finance initiative (PFI) could see the private sector running entire hospitals on contract to the NHS.
Margaret Beckett, Labour's shadow health spokeswoman, has described the PFI as "totally unacceptable" and "the thin end of the wedge of privatisation".
But only 39 per cent of those interviewed by Harris believe the service should be provided solely by people directly employed by the NHS. Fifty- seven per cent say it does not matter if the service is provided by private hospitals and doctors so long as the NHS remains publicly funded.
That view is held even by 52 per cent of intending Labour voters, who, at 45 per cent, are the group most enthusiastic about the NHS remaining purely a publicly provided service. The finding will encourage those Conservatives anxious to see at least one major project agreed before the general election in which the private sector would run core clinical services for the NHS. Of the nine PFI projects closest to conclusion, only the one in Carlisle to build a 474-bed pounds 40m hospital is currently inviting the private sector to bid to run the whole unit, including its doctors and nurses.
The poll shows that powerful support remains for an NHS free at the point of use. But it reveals that voters are distrustful of politicians' handling of the service and worried about its long-term future.
A mere 21 per cent believe the NHS is safe in the Government's hands, a view which does not differ widely across age and social class, but is much more strongly held by Conservative voters.
But those polled are far from entirely convinced that it would be safe with Labour, despite the party seeing the NHS as its natural territory.
Fifty-seven per cent said the service would be safe in the hands of a Labour government. But one in five disagreed with that proposition and a further 23 per cent said they did not know. Even of likely Labour voters a quarter were dubious or uncertain about the prospect.
Asked whether something recognisable as the NHS would still exist in five years' time, more than two-thirds - 68 per cent - believed it would. But only 46 per cent agreed it would be there a decade from now, and over that time scale young people were much more dubious than the middle-aged and elderly. Half of 18 to 24-year-olds believed it would not exist a decade on, against a third of those past retirement age.
When asked whether it would exist at the end of their lifetime, more than two-thirds of those under 35 believed it would not, against the half of those past retirement age who believed it would see them out.
The Independent/Harris poll also shows huge support for a "cradle to grave" service. More than 80 per cent are in favour of society as a whole paying for long-term nursing and residential care. A mere 11 per cent of all voters - and only 17 per cent of Conservatives - believe people should be responsible for making their own arrangements for their care in old age.
One of the poll's most striking findings is the willingness to pay more if people thought it would improve services. Such declarations are notorious for not being translated into voting behaviour. But instead of merely asking whether people would be willing to pay 1p more in income tax, the poll asked if they would pay 2p more - while pointing out that would add only 15 per cent to hospital and community health service spending.
Despite those qualifications, 90 per cent said yes and a mere 8 per cent no - a view held equally strongly by all social classes, ages and political affiliations.
Labour softens line, page 2
More poll details, page 6
SAFE IN WHOSE HANDS? THE FUTURE OF THE NHS
The NHS is in a state of turmoil.
Staff are in revolt, demands on the service are rising and funds are limited. What is to be done?
The Independent today launches a week-long investigation into the
condition of our health service.
It begins on page 6.Reuse content