Just like any casualty, first aid has to be carried out before any real operation can be performed. It seems likely that recent announcements to increase NHS funding by the Prime Minister is just this – the stitches before the surgery. Whether a cheque for £20 billion to the NHS will be enough to hold this 70-year-old together remains to be seen. Worse still, if contingent on Brexit, there’s every chance this cheque may still bounce.
Despite the long-faces, there’s no point looking this gift horse in the mouth. A real term funding increase of 3.4% will do much to cover the effects of austerity in recent years. Guaranteeing NHS capacity and capital today will be key to its handling the challenges of an aging population and uncertain economic times ahead. At the very worst, such investment stands to reform services; at the very best, it stands to transform them.
This £20 billion figure comes as a response to The Institute of Fiscal Studies’ Recommendations last month. This breaks down to around £384 million each week, a figure worthy of its busload of publicity. Though the exact shopping list associated has yet to be determined, this amount will allow the NHS to start to make some of the long-term, structural changes it has long lobbied for. Publicised priorities include increased staffing, improved construction, reduced inequalities in mental healthcare – even prevention stands a chance of benefiting from these funds. However, these plans come with noticeable absences; despite being inextricable from our health, social care won’t see any further resources until after ‘forthcoming spending review’ in 2020. Furthermore, it is not yet certain whether the entire UK will see benefits from a bolstered NHS England budget.
Though we’ll have to wait until the next spending review for a full breakdown, last Monday the Prime Minister asserted that a combination of tax reform and a ‘Brexit dividend’ (the returning home of ring-fenced monies for Brussels) will provide necessary funds for these ambitions. It seems strange however, to be counting the settlement money before the divorce papers have been signed. Given the precariousness of the Brexit deal, alternative options for following through on this pledge will have to be considered. This could include a combination of reduced spending in other departments and an increased burden on the higher rate taxpayers, both of which are prickly issues for all involved.
Scepticism aside, any increase to NHS budget is to be warmly welcomed. If properly managed, £20 billion extra in funding has the scope to make more than simply cosmetic improvements. However, even though resuscitation seems assured for now, after years of neglect the overall recuperation of the NHS remains in question.
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