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NHS Chief in high-stakes gambit to boost funding in autumn budget

Published on 09/11/17 at 09:45am
IMAGE: NHS England

It speaks to the desperation of the funding crisis for the NHS that Chief Executive of the NHS, Simon Stevens, came out swinging yesterday, at NHS Provider’s annual conference. Stevens contradicted the health minister and brought up the sensitive issue of the £350 million promised to the NHS as part of the Brexit leave campaign.

None of these actions would have been taken lightly by Stevens, knowing full well that such a full frontal assault on the government would, in all likelihood, leave his own position untenable. The gambit, though, was to apply enough public pressure to force through an increase in funding to the NHS, if only through damage-avoidance on the part of the government to avoid the Chief Executive of the service from continuing to embarrass them so publically.

Philip Hammond will deliver the new autumn budget on 22 November and Jeremy Hunt, Health Minister, speaking just prior to Stevens had said that current spending was above average for other European nations. Stevens directly contradicted this, only minutes later, by saying:

“Some may say, ‘Aren’t we spending at the European average?’ Well, only if you think that bundling austerity-shrunken Greek and Portuguese health spending should help shape the benchmark for Britain. If instead you think that modern Britain should look more like Germany or France or Sweden then we are under-funding our health services by £20 billion to £30 billion a year.”

He also referenced the £350 million pledge written on the side of Leave campaign ‘battle bus’ and called for this to be honoured. This would guarantee an extra £18.2 billion per year for the NHS.

Clearly, this call for funding would not be honoured, given that it represents a massive increase on the promised £8 billion that is provisioned for the NHS over the current government term. However, it came as another direct assault on the government and a direct rallying cry to those who voted for Brexit under the pretext of additional money for the service – one of the decisive factors in referendum.

Chief Executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, responded to Stevens’ comments:

 “We strongly welcome the directness, honesty and clarity of what Simon Stevens has said today. We have been arguing for some time that the NHS can no longer deliver what it needs to on the funding available and it is important that Simon Stevens has said this for the first time clearly and publicly.

“He is right to warn that without extra funding there will be consequences for patients, who will have to wait longer, and may not get the treatment they should have when they need it.”

Whether Stevens directness will pay off should become clear on Wednesday of next week, on the announcement of the budget. If Hammond does not move the dial on NHS funding, Stevens holds the ability to make life even more uncomfortable for a government rattled by recent scandals.

Ironically, the behaviour of International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, and her subsequent resignation managed to limit the impact of Stevens’ words, but he has the ability to up the ante post-budget announcement.

Ben Hargreaves

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