What Does the Tory Leadership Battle Mean for the NHS?

Leo Hynett

Since Boris Johnson’s resignation, prominent Tory leaders have been vying for the position of PM. For now, Johnson remains the ‘caretaker’ of the position until a new leader is elected. The title is set to go to Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss who have been publicly butting heads over issues such as taxes and the cost of living crisis. The future of the NHS has, thus far, felt like something of a side note.

Whichever one of the final contenders wins the race, they will have a lot on their plate from the moment they step through the doors of Number 10.

Johnson has pledged he will not make any big policy changes before he steps down. While it is arguably a good thing that he is not making big plans that his successors will have to action, this does mean that progress on urgent issues will stall until a new PM is put in place in September.

NHS challenges

The current picture of healthcare in the UK is bleak:

‘There are currently 6.6 million people waiting for hospital treatment in England – one in nine of the population. The total number of patients waiting over 18 weeks for treatment now stands at 2.48 million, while 323,093 patients had been waiting over one year.’

As a result of these immense waits, self-pay private care has rocketed by 39% compared to pre-pandemic levels. The BMJ has warned this could lead to a two-tiered system, furthering health inequalities across the country.

Alongside this, ambulance wait times are more than double the 18-minute target. In emergency situations, every minute could be the difference between life and death.

Given the very clear need for change, one might expect NHS policy to be featured heavily in the Tory leadership debates between Sunak and Truss. However, there has been remarkably little of substance and the NHS received only an ‘incidental mention’ during the first Tory leadership debate.  

Rishi Sunak ​​wants to introduce a new target ‘to eliminate all one-year waits by September 2024,’ six months earlier than currently planned. However, without concrete plans of how this goal will be turned into reality, it may just be empty talk. With Rishi Sunak pledging to put the NHS on ‘war footing’ but offering little in the way of details, his proposals have thus far been ‘a mix of the underwhelming and the vague’ – but at least they’re present. Liz Truss’s plan currently revolves around scrapping the health and social care levy introduced earlier this year by Sunak and then health secretary Sajid Javid.

The NHS ranks high on the list of voters’ concerns, so its absence in debates has not gone unnoticed. Some have suggested that the fact ‘living with covid’ was a Tory plan means that saying it’s not working (and thus the NHS is in desperate need of more support) is akin to speaking ill of Brexit. Following Johnson’s infamous NHS bus pledge, the contenders may be reluctant to make any concrete pledges lest they haunt them for the duration of their term.

The cost of living

The current challenges facing the NHS cannot be examined without taking the cost of living crisis into account. The two are deeply intertwined with the cost of living crisis having a disproportionate impact on vulnerable members of society, carers, and those on lower incomes.

Some NHS staff are unable to afford to eat and trusts are setting up food banks to support them, while doctors have warned they could be the next to strike if pay demands aren’t met. Inflation means staff are seeing real-term pay cuts; at a time when the NHS is in dire need of more staff, it is struggling to keep them. At last count, there were over 105,000 staff vacancies across the NHS.

Long waiting times don’t just damage the health of the nation, they also damage the economy: ‘of the roughly half a million Britons aged 15-64 missing from the workforce, two in three cite long-term illness as their reason for not holding or seeking a job.’ While it would be easy to blame Britain’s handling of the virus, the data suggests otherwise.

Britain’s rise in chronic illness predates the onset of the pandemic and workforces in other countries have recovered from the heights of the pandemic where Britain’s has not. The most plausible explanation, claims the Financial Times, is a bleak one: ‘we may be witnessing the collapse of the NHS, as hundreds of thousands of patients, unable to access timely care, see their condition worsen to the point of being unable to work.’

Our economy and health service are intrinsically linked and, unless we can find a point in this cycle to nudge it in a positive direction, we are facing a bleak downward spiral. The NHS should be an utmost priority for the new PM and will hopefully feature more prominently in upcoming debates so that the Tory party can make an informed choice about a leader who will protect the health of the nation.