It was the worst kept secret in Westminster, but we finally heard over the weekend that the NHS will receive a funding boost of around £20bn a year.
As with public sector pay increases, the Conservatives perhaps feel that they have to loosen the purse strings a little, given the scare they got at the election last year.
It is therefore not a good idea for Jeremy Hunt to enter a bidding war without a broader plan for reforming the health system. We spend around £330m on healthcare every day, so any money is spent pretty quickly. Pouring in more funds will likely be a shorter-than-immediate-term fix.
It cannot be said enough: we are not alone in providing universal coverage. This is something that most of the rest of Europe manages to do, but the better healthcare systems on the continent have acknowledged the need for models that are financially sustainable in the long term.
Britain’s sole focus on spending, without reform, just means we often throw good money after bad.
Theresa May has said that the NHS must reduce waste and increase efficiency, although she seems to have kicked plans for a more radical overhaul down the road. Widespread reform is crucial, but even if there were the political appetite for it, it would take significant time. So what can we do in the meantime?
For a start, we could hit go on hospital builds gummed up by Carillion’s collapse. The most notable of these is the Midland Met hospital in the West Midlands. The longer this is delayed, the more it will drastically increase the cost for taxpayers, and the less money we will have for frontline care.
A sensible financial approach to NHS finances is necessary not just inside hospitals, but in building them too. The authorities should get a move on with the project.
More importantly, we must continue the pace of automation in the NHS. Some Trusts have been quick to adopt new technologies, and others which have been slower should take note. The Labour peer Lord Darzi reckons that automation could save the NHS £12.5bn a year, releasing funds to spend elsewhere.
This is the kind of thinking we need in the immediate term – how can we save some money or improve service delivery so that we can allow nurses and doctors to do their jobs with more dignity and less paperwork?
Currently, the vague plans to fund this NHS boost appear to be partly reliant on Brexit, but primarily look like they will involve hiking taxes. And yet the tax burden is about to hit its highest level in nearly 50 years, and the cost of living is still a major concern. We should be doing everything possible to limit the extra strain on taxpayers.
Of course, spending more money on healthcare is not in and of itself a bad thing: as countries get richer, they do tend to spend more on healthcare. But we need a longer-term plan to ensure that we can continue to afford it as the population ages and the profile of healthcare spending changes.
This £20bn boost to funding needs to be the start of a wider conversation about priorities, automation, and reform.