Spring Budget and NHS Implications

Izzy Humphreys for Distilled Post

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, delivered his debut Budget to the House of Commons last week, with anticipation surrounding cost of living support and many expecting to hear of a plan to resolve the ongoing NHS staffing crisis which is leading to strikes and excessive waiting times. The Chancellor came up short in many areas, however, as NHS needs were neglected yet again in a Budget that, unsurprisingly, addresses the needs of the few rather than the many.

What was in the Spring Budget?

The key takeaways from the Spring Budget focused on the ongoing cost of living crisis, childcare, and pensions, and largely celebrated the fact that the UK will not go into a recession this year, as was previously anticipated.

Most impactfully, the cap on typical household energy bills to £2,500 and government subsidies to meet this price guarantee was announced to extend until end of June, as well as the continuation of the freeze on fuel duty. 

The expansion of free childcare to cover one- and two-year-olds for up to 30 hours was also central to the Chancellor’s budget, as was the increase of the universal credit cap to £951-a-month per child. Payment protocols have also been altered whereby families will receive their financial support up front rather than in arrears.

Regarding pensions, the tax-free yearly allowance was increased from £40,000 to £60,000, and the cap on how much workers can accumulate in lifetime savings before facing additional tax charges will be abolished. 

Less well-received has been the rise in corporation tax by 6%, a move that many feel is ill-placed timing when businesses are needed now more than ever to boost the ever-shrinking economy. 

Impact on the NHS and healthcare

Despite the ongoing workforce crisis the NHS are experiencing, shockingly little was announced that would directly affect UK medical workers and healthcare in Britain, and the NHS are largely unsatisfied

No pay award for 2023/24 has been announced as of yet, which has been heavily criticised considering the pay award for 2022/23 was not supported by any additional funding, leaving the NHS to fork out out of its own pocket and therefore lacking funds to invest in other areas. The NHS has been very vocal about the fact that they will be unable to fund any pay award over 3.5%, and anything over the rumoured 5% will lead to cutbacks in other areas, including patient care. 

There is also apprehension surrounding the continued delay of Hunt’s long-awaited NHS workforce plan. Announced initially in the Autumn Budget, health workers have been eagerly awaiting a fully-funded strategy to address the workforce crisis which has now left the NHS facing 124,000 vacancies and ongoing pay disputes. The Spring Budget came up short however, and though the Chancellor has advised it will be published soon, has provided no details as to when ‘soon’ may be.

On the other hand, NHS health leaders have credited the Chancellor for some positive changes implemented in his Budget. Most notably, the new childcare allowance will be very beneficial to NHS staff in giving more parents the opportunity to return to work and retaining staff when they decide to have a child. 

The removal of the pension lifetime allowance and the increase in the tax-free yearly allowance should also allow more senior healthcare professionals to stay in their jobs for longer. It has also been noted that the freeze on fuel duty will be helpful to community nursing, though the 5% cut has previously come under fire as inadequate help to community nursing staff.

A celebration of mediocrity

Unsurprisingly, Hunt’s announcement of the new Budget measures held a heavy focus on Britain’s narrowly escaping a recession and, as such, the prioritisation of economic growth over the next financial year. 

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) still makes some bleak forecasts, however. The UK economy may not go into recession but will still contract by an estimated 0.2% and will be the most underperforming economy in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which now consists of 38 member countries. Inflation will also remain incredibly high and the OBR also forecasting a potential drop in living standards until 2027.

Sir Keir Starmer was heavily critical of the Budget in his rebuttal speech, labelling the Tories as “out of touch” for celebrating things not going from bad to worse whilst the NHS receives no answers or reassurance, small businesses will be hit hardest by the increase in corporation tax, and most of the British population will be unaffected by the pension changes which target only the top 1% of earners.

Jeremy Hunt’s underwhelming Budget and quasi-optimistic speech, rather than instilling relief and reassurance in the public, instead leaves them with more questions than answers, one of which being: is this the new normal? 

It increasingly feels as though regular inflation rates, fuel costs and NHS waiting times are a thing of the past, and the Spring Budget doesn’t achieve much in assuring us that this isn’t the case, and it seems that in historically uncertain times, uncertainty is all we can expect going forward.