24 Mar 2015

Debating the future of the NHS

The NHS is the number one issue for voters ahead of the May election. With A&E under pressure, an ageing population and a funding gap, what is the future of #yourNHS?

Although the health service has been spared the sort of cuts other government departments have faced since 2010, there are warnings from some NHS bosses that unless funding rises significantly after the election, patient care will deteriorate, with waiting lists rising.

These pressures will be discussed during a live debate on Channel 4 News at 7pm, when we will be joined by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Liberal Democrat Health Minister Norman Lamb, Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, and Ukip’s Dr Mark Hanson.

Our debate takes place at Watford General Hospital, from where Channel 4 News has been reporting over the last few months. Throughout the winter, it failed to make any of its weekly targets for treating 95 per cent of patients within four hours, as the numbers attending A&E continued to rise. We were told that if just one doctor called in sick, the system would be pushed to the brink.

Watford is not unique. In common with other hospitals across the country, it is having to cope with a number of challenges, while also dealing with the new reality of an NHS that is no longer awash with money.

Along with a growing elderly population, there are patients with increasingly complex needs. Then there is the role of social care outside the hospital setting.

Across England in the last two weeks of 2014, more than 20,000 people waited more than four hours for hospital treatment, almost four times the number recorded in the same period in 2013.

From November to the end of February 2015, there were 7 million visits to A&E departments in England, 190,000 more than the year before, coupled with delays in discharging patients.

With the NHS facing a shortfall of £30bn by 2020, the issue of funding will be critical for the next government. It is hoped efficiencies will save £22bn, but that still leaves £8bn that needs to be found.

So what are the options if the new administration decides it cannot afford to sign a big cheque? Paying to see your GP? Penalising people who pay “unnecessary” visits to A&E? A bigger role for private health insurers? Increasing the number of services run by independent providers?

By the end of the last government, the NHS was spending 4.4 per cent of its budget on independent providers – £4.1bn. Under this government, that has increased to 6.1 per cent – £6.5bn.

Politicians exploring radical solutions need to tread carefully. Polling shows that nine in ten people support an NHS that is funded by the taxpayer, provides comprehensive care for everyone, and is free at the point of use.

But on the use of independent providers, four in ten say they do not mind who delivers their care.