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Political parties reveal their health plans as campaigning for the next election gets under way

With a general election expected in 2024, the political party conferences were an opportunity for the parties to make their pitch to voters.

According to polling by Ipsos, the NHS consistently ranks in the top three public concerns so it was no surprise that each of the three largest English parties had health high on their agenda.

First up were the Liberal Democrats. The party kicked off its conference with a focus on social care as leader Ed Davey set out his ambition to introduce free personal care. The policy would increase access to state-funded care at a time when people’s need for care is higher than ever, plus it would allow social care services to better integrate with NHS services, which are already free at the point of use.

The Liberal Democrat conference also agreed to a raft of measures to boost public health. Restricting junk-food advertising, increasing the annual funding for council public health teams, and making it easier for people to have their blood pressure checked are all now official Liberal Democrat policy. A significant amount of what they announced chimed with the recent report A covenant for health that was supported by The King’s Fund.

The Liberal Democrats were not the only party with big ideas to improve health. A week later, the Conservatives gathered in Manchester.

Surprise political announcements are often referred to as ‘rabbits pulled out of a hat’. Well, Rishi Sunak certainly produced a pretty big rabbit when he committed to banning the sale of cigarettes to anyone born on or after 1 January 2009, essentially creating a phased ban on smoking. This approach is already in place in New Zealand and a review led by Dr Javed Khan OBE had recommended that the UK follow the same path.

The ban would be a genuinely landmark moment for health. Polling by YouGov found that 63% of the public support the ban and the Prime Minister has received near-universal applause from health bodies. A consultation is already under way and with Labour backing the move the required legislation is likely to get through parliament.

'With multiple crises across health and care, it’s hard to argue with the fact that something has to change'

Unfortunately, that long-term clarity of ambition was lacking from other areas of health policy. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a review into why so many public sector staff, including doctors and nurses, spend a significant chunk of their time dealing with admin. In a somewhat contradictory move, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Steve Barclay later set out an intention to move resource away from ‘the back office’ to the front line. It’s hard to see how reducing admin spend will sort the lost letters and delayed test results that many patients experience.

Another theme from Conservative conference was gender and trans rights. At least seven cabinet ministers focused parts of their conference addresses on these issues, including the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care who announced plans to reverse guidance allowing trans people to be placed on wards according to the gender they identify as. The various speeches stoked a lot of debate and the ensuing arguments were often high on anger but low on facts. Richard Murray’s recent blog looking at the data on trans people’s experience of care and their health outcomes is worth a read to rebalance the unfortunate lack of evidence in this debate.

Finally to Liverpool for the Labour Party conference where the buzz word from the shadow health and care team was ‘reform’, with Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Wes Streeting using the phrases ‘modernise or die’ and ‘reform to survive’.

Strong stuff. And with multiple crises across health and care, it’s hard to argue with the fact that something has to change.

Labour was clear that it wants to rebalance the focus of the NHS away from hospitals towards primary and community services, with greater emphasis on preventing illness. The intention is welcome. Bolstering primary and community services has the potential to catch illness earlier and provide patients with more options to manage their health beyond having to turn up at over-stretched hospitals.

This is not a new vision, though. Multiple previous governments have stated a similar ambition. To come good on this pledge, a government would need to grapple with some knotty issues, such as making careers in community services more attractive and shifting the balance of investment away from hospitals towards community services.

Labour also announced plans for more and better CT and MRI scanners, more out-of-hours working to deal with the increasingly long elective care waiting lists, and policies to improve and overhaul NHS dentistry.

'The starting gun has been fired, the election campaign is under way, and health will remain high on the agenda.'

As well as listening to the various announcements, it is interesting to note what wasn’t said at the party conferences. Neither Labour or Conservatives had much to say about the desperately needed and long overdue reform of adult social care. Labour, like the Liberal Democrats, committed to increasing the pay of care workers, but neither Labour nor the Conservatives set out any detail on wider reform of social care.

It’s also worth noting what has been happening away from party conferences.

At the start of this month, the NHS England board met. Chief Financial Officer Julian Kelly told the meeting that by August this year the NHS had already amassed an in-year deficit of £1 billion. Just a few days earlier, in hospitals across England, consultants and junior doctors began another strike over pay.

For all the future-focused policies heard at the conferences, it’s clear there are some immediate and pressing health and care challenges that will be on voters’ minds.

The starting gun has been fired, the election campaign is under way, and health will remain high on the agenda.