Throwing rocks despite the consensus

The parties seem to agree on the challenges to our health system, yet they continue to argue about it.

The NHS is one of the most hotly-discussed topics in the run-up to the General Election, and with just under two months to go until polling day, voters across the country are keener than ever to hear the parties set out their vision for the future of the health service.  The debate so far has been dominated by funding, with pretty much everyone, from trade unions to think tanks, agreeing that the NHS needs more money.  Have politicians got the message?  Many healthcare leaders and organisations are doubtful.

At the Guardian’s recent Healthcare Network debate, the cross-party panel of Ministers Dr Dan Poulter, Norman Lamb and Labour’s Shadow Minister Liz Kendall all met with criticism from audience members, who cited the extreme pressures the health system is facing; from GP shortages to rising PFI debts.  At this lively Guardian debate, sponsored by the ABPI (client), it didn’t take long for ideology to rear its head alongside the debate over practicalities, as campaign group ‘Keep Our NHS Public’ called to cut the money spent on ‘nonsense’ like tendering and marketing.

Aside from the row over privatisation and money, another hot political topic in the run up to the election is access to medicines and the role of NICE. At the Guardian event, the panel were asked whether they would undertake a review of NICE.  Only Kendall gave a clear commitment to do so.  Somewhat surprisingly, there was no mention of George Freeman’s ‘Innovative Medicines and Medical Technology Review’, which is set to consider this very issue.  But what happens to the review – and indeed to the role of Minister for Life Sciences – after the election remains to be seen.

Although the political parties are still, in theory, putting final touches to their manifestos and are the first to talk these up, the expectation is not for major new health policy announcements to come forth now. Certainly the Conservatives are keen to keep health out of the media – that has been Jeremy Hunt’s job after all. While in policy terms there is consensus across the parties on the challenges and imperatives around integration of health and social care, responding to the demands of an ageing population and tackling dementia, all parties in ‘campaign mode’ revert to throwing rocks.  Expect more rock-throwing in the coming weeks.