What do the general election results mean for the NHS?

With the Conservatives’ majority slashed, an expensive coalition with the DUP formed and Brexit negotiations underway, it’s fair to say that UK politics has never been more unstable. Meanwhile, a recent British Medical Association poll has found that 82% of Britons are worried about the future of the NHS.

So, what does the immediate future look like for the NHS? Will the government be able to maintain any kind of stability? Or will the fears of the majority of the UK be realised?

Will Theresa May be ‘consumed’ by Brexit?

Health organisations have unanimously called for the government to guarantee the rights of EU workers in the UK after Brexit. Theresa May has now made that commitment, although the details remain vague.

But Janet Davies, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), has asked that the government does not become ‘consumed’ by Brexit at the detriment of the NHS.

Over the coming months we can expect this balancing act to play out. The government will state that their focus is on the NHS as much as it is on Brexit – but in reality, this won’t be the case. The conservatives built their entire election campaign around negotiating Brexit, albeit unsuccessfully. Brexit is priority number one, and all other challenges – including the NHS – will never get as much attention.

Labour’s growing popularity could influence the conservative approach

Jeremy Corbyn’s growing popularity was built on promises like removing the 1% pay cap on public sector workers, and re-introducing bursaries for aspiring nurses and midwives. That support cannot and will not be ignored by the conservatives.

How far their approach will change remains to be seen, but it’s hard to believe they won’t budge at all. Labour rallied around the fact that nurses are, according to RCN research, 14% or £3,000 worse off now than in 2010. If that slump continues, the country will surely continue to move towards the left, and the conservatives will struggle to hold on to power.

An end to austerity?

Some commentators have claimed that this extraordinary election could mark the end of austerity. And an end to austerity would surely mean more funding for the NHS.

The demand for more funding is unprecedented. In the 2015/2016 financial year, the NHS’ deficit was around £3 billion. While care admissions have been increasing by at least 4% per year, funding has risen at 0.9% per year in real terms. By anyone’s definition, the NHS is overstretched, underfunded, and it’s getting worse.

Again, many are suggesting that the general election result was a rejection of austerity which cannot be ignored by the government. Chancellor Phillip Hammond has hinted since the election that the government was ‘not deaf’ to the UK’s attitude towards spending cuts, and that some taxes could be raised to increase funding for public services.

However, such is the scale of the NHS’ lack of funding that it’s hard to see a reversal that will have a lasting impact. Some senior doctors have even claimed that the government will continue to underfund the NHS because it wants to speed up its plans to privatise the health service. In their view, a crisis is being created to scapegoat doctors.

There is hope for the NHS – because it’s Britain’s number one concern

Shortly before the election, it was revealed that concern over the NHS was the highest it had been for 15 years. Suddenly and unavoidably, it had become our number one priority. And as a result, Theresa May’s die-hard focus on Brexit negotiations rather than supporting the NHS lost her a number of seats.

The public have spoken, and when they are loud enough, politicians listen. Not necessarily because they agree, but because their focus is always on staying in power.

So, while NHS underfunding will not be miraculously solved any time soon (even Labour’s funding pledges would still see a funding deficit overall), it’s possible that this government will do more for the NHS.

It’s often cited that Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement was Tony Blair and New Labour. It could well be that Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest achievement is making the conservatives face up to the challenges of the NHS. Because one thing is for certain: the public aren’t giving up on it.

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