UK Prime Minister targets economy, health and migration as priorities

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak laid out his stall for the year ahead by identifying his five key priorities with an emphasis on the economy, healthcare and migration.

In his first major speech of the year, Mr Sunak said his aims were to cut inflation by half; grow the UK economy; reduce the national debt; tackle waiting lists for patients in Britain’s National Health Service; and introduce new laws to stem the flow of illegal migrants into the country.

“Those are the people’s priorities. They are your government’s priorities. And we will either have achieved them or not," Sunak said.

“No trick, no ambiguity, we’re either delivering for you or we’re not. We will rebuild trust in politics through action, or not at all,” he added.

Sunak, who came to office in October after a tumultuous year in UK politics that saw the resignation of two other prime ministers, stressed that he would deliver stability. He said his first priority was to “halve inflation this year to ease the cost of living and give people financial security."

Sunak's predecessor, Liz Truss, unveiled a disastrous package of unfunded tax cuts in September and was forced to quit after less than two months in the job. Her policies sent the British pound tumbling, drove up the cost of borrowing and triggered emergency intervention from Britain's central bank.

Since Sunak replaced Truss in late October, the U.K. economy has calmed but his government is grappling with a cost-of-living crisis and widening labour unrest as key public sector workers from nurses and ambulance drivers to train workers stage disruptive strikes to demand better pay to keep pace with soaring inflation.

Inflation in the UK stood at 10.7% in November — down slightly from October — but that's still near the highest in four decades. Energy and food costs have soared, in large part driven by Russia's war on Ukraine, and living standards have plunged for millions of Britons.

In recent weeks, Sunak's government was also under increasing pressure to address failings in the public health system, with many front-page headlines focusing on the lack of hospital beds and record waiting times for seeing a doctor or getting an ambulance.

Authorities have blamed high numbers of flu and COVID-19 cases, but health chiefs say the problems are longstanding and a result of chronic government underfunding.

Sunak has also repeatedly said that stopping migrants from crossing the English Channel in small boats to claim asylum in the UK was a top priority for his term in office. Last year more than 45,700 people crossed the Channel to the UK — a record high and up 60% compared to numbers in 2021.

“We will pass new laws to stop small boats, making sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed,” Sunak said.

Sunak's Conservative Party, which has been in power for 12 years, is lagging behind the opposition Labour Party in polls. The next general election is due to take place by the end of 2024.