NHS to be a key battleground in the race for Number 10

The long-term future of the NHS will likely be a key battleground in the run up to the general election.

Recent polling suggests that the founding principles of the service are still staunchly backed by the British public.

But satisfaction with the NHS has dipped to record lows, indicating that politicians will have to persuade voters that their party will be the most likely to improve care for patients.

(PA Graphics)

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey – a long-running poll tracking the views of the public – found that only 24% of the public are satisfied with the NHS.

Despite low levels of public satisfaction, a large majority of the public still support the principles of the NHS as 82% say the NHS should be available to everyone, 91% said it should be free of charge and 82% say it should be primarily funded through taxation.

As well as enlisting public support, political parties will be mindful that a significant proportion of the population are employed by the NHS.

Recent industrial action across the service and polls of NHS staff suggest that many parts of the workforce – including some 1.5 million people in England alone – are not always satisfied with their employment.

Conservative leadership bid
Rishi Sunak during a visit to his family’s old business, Bassett Pharmacy, in Southampton (Stefan Rousseau PA)

In previous elections, health leaders have urged politicians from both sides of the House not to use the NHS as a political football.

Despite this plea, it is likely that manifestos will make a number of far-reaching promises on how each party intends to revitalise the service – likely to be accompanied by significant funding pledges.

The size of the waiting list will be top of voters’ minds as many will be on the list themselves or know someone who is.

Other considerations will include access to GP and dental care.

Cancer care and how quickly people are seen in A&E departments are also likely to be discussed as important topics over the coming weeks.

Key figures in the race for the top job at the Department of Health and Social Care in England are current Health and Social Care Secretary Victoria Atkins and Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting.

Both have spoken about their own personal experiences in the service – Ms Atkins has described her care for type 1 diabetes and also expressed concern over the care she received around the time she had a baby while Mr Streeting has spoken with high praise for the care he received when he had kidney cancer.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who pledged to cut NHS waiting lists as one of his top priorities, has also spoken of how he grew up with two parents working in healthcare – his father an NHS GP and his mother a pharmacist.

After he made the pledge in January 2023, the waiting list continued to rise for a few months, hitting a record high in September 2023, since when it has shown a slight fall.

An estimated 7.54 million treatments were waiting to be carried out at the end of March, relating to 6.29 million patients, according to the latest NHS figures.

(PA Graphics)

In his speech announcing the election, Mr Sunak said that his Government put “record amounts of funding into our NHS and ensured it is now training the doctors and nurses it needs in the decades to come” and “will ensure that the next generation grows up smoke free”.

Commenting on the election announcement, Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive at NHS Providers, said: “Public satisfaction with the NHS is at an all-time low, reflecting many people’s experiences of the relentless pressure on GPs, hospitals, ambulances and mental health and community health services.

“But public support for the fundamental principles of the NHS remains rock solid.

“Demand for health and social care services is increasing and getting more complex as providers and staff work flat out in tough conditions to give patients safe, first-class care.

“The next government and the NHS must work hand in hand to create the picture of health for the nation we all want to see.”

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “The next government, quite literally, has the population’s lives in its hands.

“As we head into the election season, political parties must remember that a healthier nation is not only beneficial to our day-to-day lives but it supports the safe running of the NHS and wider economy.

“Since the last election, the NHS has gone through its most difficult years with it responding to a global pandemic, growing waiting lists, staffing pressures and strikes, and rising ill health.

“We are at a turning point for the NHS and political parties have a choice to make on what they want their legacy to be if they are granted the keys to Downing Street.

“Simply put, the next government’s commitment to the NHS will shape our own health and wellbeing, and those of generations to come.”

Professor Pat Cullen, general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “An early plea from nursing staff: don’t make the NHS a political football but don’t think you can get by on just platitudes either.

“Nursing staff are looking for firm commitments from all candidates and all parties – things have got to change.

“Patients need safer care; staff need fairer treatment, starting with their pay – these issues must be central to the election debate in the coming weeks.

“Politicians must show they have the answers to widespread health and care workforce shortages and poor population health.”

Professor Phil Banfield, chair of council at the British Medical Association, said: “This election is a chance to guarantee the future of our NHS for everyone, and it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time.

“The NHS is in crisis, with a demoralised workforce who are run down after years of being overworked and real terms pay cuts, and more than a decade of rising waiting lists and cuts to services.

“Thousands upon thousands of doctors have joined colleagues across the NHS in taking unprecedented industrial action, after persistent failure to recognise and safeguard the medical workforce.

“We cannot allow our health services to continue stumbling from crisis to crisis. All parties must make the health of the NHS their top priority.”