Over recent weeks, the battle for the heart and soul of our health service has ratcheted up to absurd and unhelpful levels. Labour is pulling out all the stops to convince voters that the NHS is in crisis – a basket case run by private firms working to destroy it; the party searches for negative statistics and hospital horror stories to fit its narrative. On the other hand, the Conservatives have failed to come up with a plan to meet the £8bn shortfall by 2020 identified by Simon Stevens, the chief executive of the NHS.
But the NHS is far too important to be treated as a political football. The truth is that it’s neither on the verge of disintegration, nor is everything perfect. There are problems, but also triumphs. The majority of patients, for the majority of the time, receive world-class care from dedicated staff.
Over the past year, the NHS has been performing better than ever before and was rated the best in the world by the independent Commonwealth Fund. Public satisfaction in the NHS has risen sharply and dissatisfaction is at an all-time low. Yet massive challenges lie ahead.
Medical advances mean that people are living longer, and the number of people living for longer with a range of long-term conditions is increasing rapidly. The financial implications are immense – and the next five years will be crucial. To safeguard the NHS for the future we need both investment and change.
It is for this reason that the Liberal Democrats have called on both Labour and the Tories to take part in a non-partisan review of health and care services’ budgets. This review would ditch the unhelpful rhetoric and, instead, listen to the people with the best knowledge and ideas on how to improve our health service.
The public wants and expects politicians to bury their differences in order to sustain the NHS and vital care services for elderly people.
We need to root out poor care but also tackle the problem of demotivated and overworked staff. The front line needs to be supported and listened to. And we need to make sure that patients are central.
The Lib Dems want to invest an additional £500m a year at least in mental health. This will enable us to give equal rights to maximum waiting times to those suffering mental ill health as already enjoyed by people with physical conditions. This will start to set right a bias that has existed for years, but also makes complete economic sense: investing to save.
Only by concentrating on what works, not on what scores well in focus groups or scares voters into believ- ing the health service is in danger of collapse, and by talking honestly about the challenges we face, will patients and staff feel confident that the future of the NHS is secure.
Norman Lamb MP is a Liberal Democrat and minister for Care and Support
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