Sir Keir Starmer faced a backlash over plans to tackle “bureaucratic nonsense” in the NHS, as the Labour leader risks a deepening row within in his party over his push to win the centre ground ahead of the general election.
The opposition leader said inefficiencies in the NHS created a “mind-boggling waste of time” and said he wanted to allow patients to be able to bypass GPs and self-refer themselves to specialists.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said Labour didn’t “understand” the vital role of GPs, while leading NHS campaigner Dr Rachel Clarke called Sir Keir’s proposal “monumentally stupid”.
Despite Sir Keir’s insistence that he does not want to privatise the NHS, there is growing unease among left-wing MPs and activists at his call to make greater use of the private sector and his claim the health service cannot be saved with a “big government chequebook”.
One leading Labour MP on the left of the party said many wanted a commitment to a “very significant injection of cash” for the NHS from Sir Keir ahead of the next election – warning against any “further privatisation”.
The former frontbencher told The Independent: “Labour’s frontbench needs to come clean. Will they make large-scale investments and pay the staff what they deserve, or not?”
Labour MP Rachel Maskell, a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, also criticised shadow health secretary Wes Streeting for suggesting that the NHS is too often run for the benefit of doctors rather than patients.
“I don’t think it’s helpful because I truly respect NHS clinicians,” she told LBC. “Of course we’ve got to ask questions but clinicians have got to do their job and don’t need the interference from Westminster.”
Some in the party are also angry about student tuition fees after Sir Keir again failed to rule out a U-turn on the promise to abolish fees introduced by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition.
Coll McCail, a member of campaign group Momentum’s executive, said Sir Keir’s continued refusal to stand by his pledge to abolish them was “deeply worrying” and said reneging on the promise would be “hypocritical”.
Labour’s approach to welfare is also under scrutiny after shadow work and pensions minister Jonathan Ashworth rowed back on the Keir Starmer pledge to scrap universal credit and said benefit sanctions would continue.
Momentum, the group set up after Jeremy Corbyn became leader, called for Labour to “end the punitive regime” which sees people’s payments docked if they fail to comply with rules.
On Sunday, Mr Starmer said he wants Labour to be “bold and courageous” in reforming the NHS – but denied any suggestion that he was moving towards privatisation of the health service.
“Free at the point of use is the founding principle of the NHS, and it is absolutely fundamental to me,” he told BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg. “It will always be free at the point of use – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the private sector as well.”
Sir Keir said Labour would look to remove ditch the “bureaucratic nonsense” as he set out plans to phase in a new system for GPs, turning family doctors into direct NHS employees. “If we don’t get real about reform, the NHS will die,” he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.
Mr Starmer also suggested improvement should include those with back problems – or those suffering from internal bleeding – being able to self-refer. “If you’ve got internal bleeding and you just need a test, there ought to be a way that doesn’t involve going to see a GP,” he told the BBC.
BMA chair Philip Banfield condemned Labour’s policy on self-referral and said he thought Labour and the party’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting did not “understand” the work of GPs.
He told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “I met with Wes Streeting this week and we had to agree to disagree that he doesn’t understand general practice. The GPs are one of the most efficient and effective parts of the health service in the way that they manage risk – they are superb at it.”
Leading NHS campaigner Dr Rachel Clarke said the suggestion that patients be allowed to “self-refer” to specialists with problems without the use of the GPs’ was “so monumentally stupid and insulting on multiple levels I hardly know where to begin”.
“These attacks on general practice and dismissal of the role of GP as a bureaucratic waste of time betray spectacular ignorance of how healthcare works,” tweeted Dr Clarke. “Skilled triage [by GPs] is vital.”
The Socialist Health Association said Labour was offering “bromides and dangerous false solutions” when the NHS needed more cash. “The emphasis on private sector involvement in the NHS will do nothing but accelerate a two-tier health system – one for the rich and one for the rest of us,” said a spokesperson.
Labour’s shadow mental health minister Rosena Allin-Khan, an A&E doctor, refused to back shadow health secretary Mr Streeting’s recent comments about the NHS needing to “reform or die”.
But shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell dismissed the idea of a rift over NHS reform and the use of the private sector. She told The Independent that the shadow cabinet agreed with the need “to make sure we can use all the capacity we can get our hands on” to get record waiting lists down.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies