UK government under attack over health care spending
Chief Executive Of NHS England Simon Stevens | Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is on the defensive after the head of England’s National Health Service accused her government Wednesday of promising more money for the country’s health care system than it requested.
Simon Stevens flatly contradicted claims made by May barely 72 hours earlier, saying that it would be “stretching it” to say the service got more funding than it had proposed.
His remarks came in response to comments made by May. In an interview on Sunday, she said the government was pumping more money into the NHS than the health service demanded.
The political debate over NHS funding is potentially toxic for May, having played a key part in the EU referendum campaign amid claims from leading Leave supporters, including Boris Johnson, that Britain’s budget contributions to Brussels could be redirected to the health service in the event of a vote to leave. The claim that Britain sends £350 million a week on the EU was hotly disputed but proved a key message for the Leave campaign.
Following the vote, the government has refused to increase NHS spending. However, it emerged this week that Johnson — now foreign secretary — planned an immediate £100 million per week increase in the NHS budget if he became prime minister, according to an account of the referendum campaign published by the Vote Leave chief Dominic Cummings.
In a series of outspoken remarks, Stevens admitted the health service was deteriorating in parts, claimed it was underfunding by as much as 30 percent compared to similar countries and repeated calls for social care to receive more funding to relieve pressure on doctors’ surgeries and accident and emergency wards.
“Like every part of the public service we got less than we asked for in that [spending review] process. I think it would be stretching it to say that it got more than it asked for” — Simon Stevens
Stevens said the health service faced “clearly very substantial pressures” but he denied the government has provided more funding that he had said was needed.
“Like every part of the public service we got less than we asked for in that [spending review] process. I think it would be stretching it to say that it got more than it asked for,” he said.
Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said the government repeatedly says the NHS is getting more money than it requested.
“It’s right that by 2020, NHS England will be getting an extra £10 billion over the course of six years. I don’t think that’s the same as saying we’re getting more than we asked for in five years,” he said, noting that the funding plans were contained in the Five Year Forward View not Six Year Forward View.
May gives an inch
The comments are a swipe at May’s government and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who have repeatedly claimed NHS England got £10 billion when they asked for £8 billion.
In the Sunday interview on Sky, May repeated that claim.
“We asked the NHS to set out what it needed over the next five years in terms of the plans for its future and funding it would need,” she said. “They did that, we gave them that funding. In fact we gave them more funding that they required so funding is now at record levels for the NHS.”
May agreed to meet with cross-party members of parliament who earlier Wednesday had called for a new group to urgently review the long-term funding needs for health and social care services.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said Stevens’ intervention “blows apart” May’s claim that the government is providing enough funding. “Theresa May is in total denial about the crisis the Tories have created in the NHS,” he said. “The warnings from professionals and patients have flooded in, but Theresa May has just buried her head in the sand.”
“Enough is enough,” Ashworth said. “Theresa May needs to come out of her bunker, admit she’s got it wrong and guarantee the funding the NHS needs. No. 10 should listen to the experts like Simon Stevens and not be briefing against him.”
The comments come on top of a damning assessment by the Red Cross who last week described a “humanitarian crisis” in emergency care — a description the government does not accept.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, a trade organization that represents service providers, earlier told MPs that he too believed there was a funding gap.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s not new; I think it’s intensifying, there are some very genuine choices to be made across the NHS and there’s a circle to be squared” — Simon Stevens
“No we don’t believe that the NHS has all the money that it needs to deliver what it’s being asked to deliver,” he said, “We think there is a gap and we need a credible and robust plan to fill that gap.”
He said he worried that if the pressures on the system did not ease then people would lose confidence in the NHS. “My nervousness is that public confidence really seriously comes into question.”
Stevens also openly contradicted Chris Wormald, the top civil servant at the Department of Health, when he argued that NHS spending was in line with the OECD average. The NHS England chief pointed out the OECD includes countries like Mexico, adding that when you compare England with advanced countries, health spending is lower.
“Per capita we are spending 30 percent less per person as the Germans. That is a choice,” he said adding that the funding crisis was set to deteriorate. “Real terms per person spending on the health service is going to go down.”
The NHS has had record patient numbers this winter and waiting times have been blamed for two deaths of patients in need of urgent care. Demand is rising by 2.5 percent to 3 percent, Stevens said, because of demographic changes and rising life expectancy.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s not new; I think it’s intensifying,” he said, adding that with more NHS transformations in the pipeline, “there are some very genuine choices to be made across the NHS and there’s a circle to be squared.”