What are the key NHS election issues?

Within hours of the General Election being announced, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn were clashing over the NHS.

At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, the two leaders used their encounter to draw the battle lines for the forthcoming election campaign.

There is no doubt that the future of the health service, and what happens to funding for social care, will be a key issue for voters.

Mr Johnson has put the NHS as a top domestic priority, visiting several hospitals in recent months and enduring the wrath of one father, a Labour activist, who told him the NHS was being destroyed.

General Election 2019
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to Dr Anna Godfrey, (left) and Dr Sarah Bowdin during a visit to the National Institute for Health Research at the Cambridge Clinical Research Facility, in Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge (Alastair Grant/PA)

Meanwhile, Labour says it will defend the service against a possible “sell out” to US corporations in a Donald Trump trade deal.

As the election campaign heats up, one of the key areas for health will undoubtedly be on more funding overall.

Waiting times are also likely to feature, including for cancer treatment, and there are huge concerns over staffing, with around 43,000 nursing vacancies currently across the NHS.

The Conservatives have already set out an increase in NHS funding worth £20.5 billion by 2023.

There is no doubt that Labour would also increase funding but by how much has yet to be stated.

What is clear is that health charities and think tanks agree there has been a prolonged funding squeeze on the NHS since 2010 that is having an impact.

Corbyn visit to Midlands
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn poses for a photo for nursing staff during a visit to the Royal Stoke University Hospital (Aaron Chown/PA)

This includes on waiting times, where there has also been a significant deterioration in performance across the board.

It is now more than three years since the target for patients to be treated within 18 weeks of referral by their GP was last met.

And it is also more than four years since hospitals hit the A&E target for 95% of patients to be dealt with in under four hours.

The target for patients to start cancer treatment within 62 days of referral was also last met over five years ago.

Hospital Stock
Drips on stands at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, Liverpool (Lynne Cameron/PA)

None of this can be ignored, but reversing these long waits will be tricky as demand for care continues to rise and hospitals feel they are being asked to do more with less.

On social care, a much-anticipated Government green paper setting out a long-term funding plan has been delayed several times.

All the parties agree there needs to be a solution, with Labour saying it will introduce free personal care for all older people, providing help with daily tasks such as getting in and out of bed, bathing and washing.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said last year he was “attracted” to a German-style system where a new payment is added to the National Insurance contributions of those aged 40 to 65 to fund future social care.

Nurses
A nurse on a ward at a hospital (Peter Byrne/PA)

NHS staffing will be another area of focus, with the Health Foundation, Nuffield Trust and the King’s Fund warning in March that the NHS has no chance of training enough GPs and nurses to solve the shortages it faces.

A report by three leading think tanks predicted that, in the next five years, nurse shortages will double and GP gaps nearly treble, without radical action.

Political parties know this is not simply about providing more money for recruitment, there are issues around training that need to be tackled, as well as ramped up efforts to make general practice a more attractive career.

The NHS is likely to be a fiercely-contested battleground in the fight for victory on December 12.

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