Many Conservative MPs want the government to take radical measures, such as introducing tax breaks for private health insurance.
December 9, 2022 9:52 a.m.(Updated 15:33)
What worries Rishi Sunak the most as he ponders the chances of the Tories in the upcoming general election? The Prime Minister took over from his predecessor by promising to steady the ship after the economic turmoil caused by Liz Truss’s disastrous “mini-budget”. Senior Tories privately believe they have got the economy back under control and are more concerned about another implosion that has not reached its worst point. If you want a clue as to what Sunak is thinking, just look at his diary from this week.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister appeared before a committee chaired by a junior minister. Then, he made his attendance known to underscore how important he was. This was the first meeting of the Elective Recovery Task Force, which is supposed to emulate the success of Kate Bingham’s vaccine task force during the pandemic. Prime ministers don’t sit on committees like this unless they’re really anxious about the things the members are discussing. And Sunak is right to be. The latest NHS waiting figures, published on Thursday, showed the number of people on that elective waiting list is now higher than Denmark’s at a record 7.2 million. It is expected to grow even more before the next elections.
The most immediately dramatic side of the crisis in the health service is what is happening in the emergency sector, with more record data. Just 68.9 per cent of people were seen within four hours last month in Accident and Emergency departments in England; the goal was 95 percent. News bulletins are regularly filled with images of cars lining up in hospital corridors and ambulances lining up outside, unable to receive more patients.
Much of Sunak’s job as Prime Minister is damage limitation. When it comes to the economy, many conservatives think they will not be forgiven for the damage caused by Truss’s brief experiment, but that with Sunak and Jeremy Hunt in charge now, at least they can show the electorate that they have done the best they can. What they are less comfortable with is if there is a lot of possible damage limitation for the health service as a political issue when waiting lists will get longer and longer. more heartbreaking stories to have emerged
Sunak’s hope, then, is that, as with the economy, he can show the electorate that he has done the best he can to limit the damage caused by spiraling NHS waits. The task force will be chaired by Health Minister Will Quince, who is respected as a safe pair of hands within Whitehall, and includes senior figures from the NHS and the independent health sector. Private healthcare is often taboo in British political discussions, but the reality is that this extra capacity helped the NHS through its last big crisis in the 2000s, and it has to be part of the solution again today.
The government currently has political cover on this, as Labor’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has said that the private sector must be one of the “levers” in clearing the backlog, just as it was when his party was last in power. This means that the Opposition won’t start complaining about “back door privatization” as they have done so often in the past, even though the public doesn’t much care who is treating them, as long as it’s free in the access point, safe and timely. It also means ministers can explore more controversial ways to use the private sector than they previously could, including reforming fees to pay providers and making it easier for GPs and hospitals to refer patients directly to the private sector. . At the moment, the system militates against this.
Sunak is getting used to having very little support from his deputies for radical policies; just look at how he has caved twice this week in planning the reform. But in the NHS he can trust that even boring or habitually troublesome MPs won’t stop him from trying new things. In fact, many of them want the government to do things that it is highly unlikely to do, like introduce tax breaks for private health insurance. Easing the entry of NHS patients into the private sector is a much softer proposition.
But with all due respect to Quince, who is indeed a very capable minister, what Sunak will also need to do politically is to be totally obsessed with this task force and the work it is doing, as long as he attends all its meetings. . and pushing its members to come up with more ideas and then implement them faster. He, too, must see the impending strikes by nurses and ambulance workers as something he needs to urgently compromise on, rather than a fight to see who ends up with the least sympathy from the public. That’s the only way the Tories can hope for any political damage limitation on the health service, which, as with the economy, is the best they can hope for so close to an election.