Wes Streeting: NHS won’t get any extra cash from Labour without major surgery

Wes Streeting has warned that the NHS will get no extra funding from Labour without “major surgery” or reform, including more use of the private sector.

The shadow health secretary insisted he would not be put off by “middle-class lefties” who cry “betrayal” over using the private sector to bring down waiting lists – adding he was “up for the fight” with NHS unions.

It is the latest in a series of bold statements about the health service by Mr Streeting, who said Labour will only give the NHS an extra £1bn pounds if medics work weekends to ensure more patients are seen.

He wrote in The Sun: “The NHS is a service, not a shrine. It is judged by how well it serves the public, not how heavy a price we’re paying for failure.”

But he was warned that his plan was not a permanent fix to the health service’s problems and that use of the private sector could “bake in” the health inequalities which already exist in the NHS, with more private hospitals based in affluent areas such as London and the South East.

Mr Streeting doubled down on his comments during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, telling the show: “There’s a principled argument here, which is that those who can afford it are paying to go private, are being seen faster, and their outcomes and their life chances and their quality of life will be better. Those who can’t afford it are being left behind. And those tend to be people from working-class backgrounds like mine, and I think that’s a disgrace.”

Leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer and shadow health secretary Wes Streeting (PA)
Leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer and shadow health secretary Wes Streeting (PA)

He also said that the “howls of outrage” from those who are concerned about NHS privatisation are “water off a duck’s back” because: “I don’t think I could look someone in the eye who’s waiting for months and months, sometimes over a year in pain and agony for treatment, and tell them that they should wait longer because my principles trump their timely access to care.”

Quizzed about whether it was right to write for The Sun, he said he made “no apology whatsoever for making sure that the widest possible audience is hearing Labour’s alternative, especially on one of the biggest crises facing our country, which is the crisis in the NHS.”

The shadow health secretary has long been a staunch proponent of NHS reform and has made it clear that Labour will take a preventative approach to healthcare in a bid to reduce demand on the NHS.

Labour has repeatedly said it will not make any unfunded spending pledges and that shadow ministers must consider reform before cash due to the UK’s economic woes.

Mr Streeting was recently critical of the NHS, calling it a “20th-century service that hasn’t changed with the times and isn’t fit for the modern era” and that “If the NHS doesn’t change, it will die.”

The shadow health secretary’s comments have evoked ire from campaign organisation Every Doctor, which has said Mr Streeting is “attempting to make an argument for unnecessary NHS reform and privatisation by pitting one group of voters against another”.

Tim Mitchell, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, told The Independent: “With NHS capacity stretched to breaking point, use of the independent sector helps ensure NHS patients waiting for surgery get their operations more quickly. However, we cannot rely on spare capacity in the private sector for a permanent fix.

“We need more NHS operating theatres, theatre staff and ring-fenced beds for surgical patients, as well as measures to ensure surgical trainees don’t miss out when operations are moved to the private sector.”

Mr Streeting has previously come head to head with healthcare unions over Labour’s plans for the NHS. The shadow health secretary highlighted what he had called a “something-for-nothing culture in the NHS” and accused the British Medical Association (BMA) of being out of touch. The BMA’s deputy chair Emma Runswick called his comments “incredibly disappointing”.

The use of private hospitals for NHS patients has increased in recent years.

According to figures published by NHS England in 2022-23, 4.5 million NHS-funded appointments, which include outpatient appointments and cancer treatments, were carried out by private hospitals compared to 3.2 million in 2019-20.

Dr Sarah Scobie of the think tank the Nuffield Trust, said using the private sector for NHS patients happens already and is one “pragmatic response” but warned, “we need to be careful not to overstate the role of the private sector as a long-term solution, it is no magic fix, and does nothing to strengthen or boost the amount of planned care the NHS itself can carry out itself.”

She also said that the use of private hospitals “does not benefit everyone equally” because areas which are more prosperous with lower levels of poor health have more private providers located where they live – including London and the South East.

“It’ll be patients in these areas that will be seen quicker, while patients with more complex health needs or living in areas of more deprivation will continue to wait longer for NHS services to carry out their procedure. There is a very real risk that this approach if used longer-term could bake health equalities even deeper into our health service.”

Prime minister Rishi Sunak pledged to reduce NHS waiting lists (PA)
Prime minister Rishi Sunak pledged to reduce NHS waiting lists (PA)

Labour’s health blitz comes amidst a raft of distressing headlines about the state of the UK’s health service. Figures uncovered by TheIndependent showed that the number of people dying needlessly in A&E soars on a Monday as hospitals are stretched to the limit and failing to discharge patients at the weekend, while The Times reported that more than 150,000 patients had to wait more than 24 hours for a hospital bed in 2023.

The dire statistics will be a major blow for Rishi Sunak who pledged to reduce NHS waiting lists as one of his five key pledges when he became prime minister.

Mr Streeting said that it would “take time” for Labour to rebuild the NHS’ capacity, “just as it’s taken over a decade for the Conservatives to break the NHS to the point of the worst crisis in its history”.

Chief secretary to the Treasury, Laura Trott MP said Labour’s promises were “completely unfunded”: “They cannot say how they would pay for their social care promises or how they will plug their £2.7bn black hole because they do not have a plan. Without a plan, Labour will have to put up taxes – taking us back to square one.”

Reform UK leader Richard Tice attacked Labour’s plans for the NHS as “betraying decent working people” (PA)
Reform UK leader Richard Tice attacked Labour’s plans for the NHS as “betraying decent working people” (PA)

Meanwhile, Reform UK launched a press conference to attack Labour’s health plans, as leader Richard Tice accused Labour of “betraying decent working people”. He claimed that “no one’s listening to what the Tories say any more” but “there’s no answers from the Labour Party really on healthcare.”

Labour has received criticism from both sides of the political spectrum as left-wing campaign group Momentum called Mr Streeting’s statement “a slap in the face to hundreds of thousands of nurses, doctors and other NHS staff in desperate need of a pay rise, and a recipe for a continued recruitment and retention crisis”.

Momentum co-chair Hilary Schan added: “It’s time Labour’s Leadership rediscovered the values which led to our party founding the NHS – and commit to end privatisation and give our NHS the money it needs.”

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has firmly backed his health secretary’s reform over spend approach, tellingGB News that if his party is elected into government “we would have to pick the NHS up and put it on its feet, but we also need to make it fit for the future and that’s where the reform comes in.”