George Osborne made history this week. Never before has the country’s most important public service been so conspicuously absent from a Budget statement. Even the Battle of Agincourt got twice as many mentions as the NHS.
It was an extraordinary omission at a time when A&E departments are in crisis and hospitals are reeling from deficits. On the one occasion he did mention the NHS, it was to claim that all was fine – a highly debatable claim to say the least.
What a contrast to the last election, when David Cameron and George Osborne couldn’t stop telling everyone how much they loved the NHS.
Now, five years later, it comes as no surprise that the Tories want to airbrush history.
David Cameron broke his promise of no more top-down reorganisations and then gave us the biggest NHS reorganisation ever.
It caused chaos, sucked billions of pounds out of patient care and put market values at the heart of the health service.
The result? More than half of nurses say their ward is dangerously understaffed, waiting lists at their highest for six years, and one in four people waits a week or more to see a GP.
But while the NHS crisis was the truth that dare not speak its name in George Osborne’s speech, that doesn’t mean the NHS won’t be affected by the Budget.
Quite the opposite. What Osborne announced this Wednesday has frightening implications for the NHS.
First, he confirmed that the Tories are committed to ploughing ahead with their plans for extreme spending cuts in the three years after the election.
As the Office for Budget Responsibility put it, a much sharper squeeze than anything seen in the past five years.
These cuts are so deep that the Tories simply wouldn’t be able to protect the NHS, whatever they try to claim.
It’s not possible to manage cuts on this scale without slicing deep into the health service.
Second, the Tory spending plans are set to devastate elderly care services, already close to collapse after five years of deep cuts.
Already hundreds of thousands fewer older people are getting vital care since David Cameron came to power, and many others are forced to rely on care visits limited to just 15 minutes.
And make no mistake: Osborne’s deep care cuts will drag down the NHS. In an era when everyone is talking about integrating health and social care budgets, it is no longer possible to separate the two.
If vulnerable people can’t get the help and support they need outside hospital, they are more likely to struggle, fall ill and have to come into hospital.
Last year saw 300,000 over-90s being rushed to A&E by blue-light ambulance.
It is a symbol of what has gone wrong under David Cameron. Hospitals overwhelmed because record numbers are having to be admitted with problems that could have been prevented if they had received better care outside hospital.
The Tory care cuts have been the root cause of the A&E crisis in this Parliament. If they are allowed to do the same in the next Parliament, it will entrench the crisis not just in A&E but across the whole NHS.
Labour has a better plan.
First, it is because the NHS will always be a priority for Labour that we explicitly reject the Tories’ extreme spending plans for the next Parliament. And we will raise a £2.5bn over and above Tory plans to recruit 20,000 more nurses and 8,000 more GPs, funded by a mansion tax on properties worth over £2m, cracking down on tax avoidance and a levy on the tobacco companies.
We will guarantee people can get a GP appointment within 48 hours and a cancer test within one week.
And we will bring health and social care services together to ensure older people finally get the care and support they deserve, tackling the scourge of care visits limited to 15 minutes.
This week’s Budget has helped in one regard. It has crystallised the choice on 7 May more clearly than ever: an extreme Tory plan which will leave the NHS in permanent crisis; or Labour’s better plan, which will rebuild the NHS as a national health and care service.
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