The leader of Britain’s doctors has accused David Cameron and George Osborne of betraying their promises that the NHS was safe in Conservative hands and would be funded properly.
Dr Mark Porter claimed that the government’s pursuit of a seven-day NHS, its dispute with junior doctors and cuts to public health showed it could not be trusted with the health service.
Ministers had wasted the year since the general election on the prime minister’s “empty promise” of a fuller seven-day NHS in England because of dogma and should have focused instead on the service’s huge financial problems, the British Medical Association’s chair of council said.
In his speech to the doctors’ union’s annual conference in Belfast, Porter accused the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, of selective use of complex evidence on the “weekend effect” – the greater likelihood that patients admitted to hospital on Saturday and Sunday will die – to “bash some doctors”. “Evidence isn’t there to decorate rhetoric,” he said.
Porter also said Hunt had sparked a “corrosive dispute” with junior doctors in England – whom he hailed as the NHS’s hardest-working medical staff – as part of the government’s “flimsy” case for significantly extending hospital and GP services at weekends.
“The government crossed the road to pick a fight with the one group of doctors who, even by the standards of our seven-day-a-week profession, are conspicuous on the wards every evening and every weekend,” Porter told 500 BMA representatives from across the UK.
He said that since the election in May 2015 “we’ve seen this government waste a year in the aimless, damaging pursuit of a mantra. In needless dispute with a profession. In hapless denial of the truth, the evidence and the lived experience of those who work in the health service – a wasted year.”
The Conservatives’ key manifesto pledge last year to introduce a seven-day NHS would “mystify those who look back and ask what kind of government whips up a corrosive dispute on a principle with which doctors fundamentally agree”, Porter added. It was a key Tory promise during the election and the subject of Cameron’s first speech when his party took office.
Porter tore into the prime minister for saying recently that “diseases don’t work weekdays, nine to five”. To applause, the BMA boss added: “And guess what, Mr Cameron, nor do we.”
He criticised the health secretary for saying hospital consultants were a roadblock to the government’s plans and for dodging hard questions about how to deliver the policy. “How will seven-day services be funded? How will they be staffed? How will weekday services be protected?” Porter asked. None of the extra £10bn the Department of Health is giving the NHS during this parliament is for expanding services at weekends, and critics claim understaffing makes the pledge unrealistic.
Porter pointed out that Meg Hillier MP, the chair of the Commons public accounts committee, had said “it beggars belief that such a major policy should be advanced with so flimsy a notion of how it will be funded”.
He said the government was in denial about the true state of the service’s finances. The chancellor insists that he has a fully funded plan for the NHS involving an extra £10bn by 2020. But research shows that while NHS England’s budget will rise, that will be partly funded by cutting parts of the wider health budget, including public health services such as smoking cessation and sexual health.
Meanwhile, the NHS’s drive for £22bn of efficiency savings by 2020 was forcing hospitals to cut staff to balance their books, and NHS trusts were £2.8bn in deficit, Porter added. “This from a government which promised to ‘cut the deficit, not the NHS’, from a prime minister who assured us that the NHS was safe in his hands.
“Health spending is a political choice, but it’s a choice from which our government is hiding. Does it really want to be remembered as the government where the waits got longer, the excuses got thinner and the debts started to pile up? Or will it finally invest in the health service it promises?”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “We recognise parts of the NHS are under pressure as demand rises partly due to our ageing population, but this government is committed to the values of the NHS which is why we are investing £10bn in its own plan for the future — including almost £4bn this year.
“We continue to provide intensive support to improve performance and boost efficiency, but the NHS as a whole must now show tight financial grip and reduce the reliance on expensive agency staff.”
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