‘Staff freeze’ and £22bn of cuts for NHS

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NHS workers on the picket line at Northwick Park Hospital in north-west London during last November’s NHS strike action. They are demanding 3,000 more midwives and will fight any attempt to impose a ‘staff freeze’
NHS workers on the picket line at Northwick Park Hospital in north-west London during last November’s NHS strike action. They are demanding 3,000 more midwives and will fight any attempt to impose a ‘staff freeze’

THE NHS is facing a ‘substantial financial problem’ which politicians are ignoring in the election campaign, its former head, David Nicholson warned yesterday.

Warning of mounting deficits, in an interview with the Today programme, Nicholson, who retired last year after running the NHS in England for eight years, said that because there was an election period, the NHS was not allowed to publish the latest report on its financial position.

But he claimed it is ‘pretty clear in the NHS that there is a substantial financial problem, particularly in the hospital sector’ which would become ‘crystal clear’ in the autumn.

Nicholson warned: ‘I have not heard in most of the conversations politicians are having at the moment about what they’re going to do about that financial hole.

‘They want to talk about extra services and extra investment when actually there is a problem there to face.’

He said the NHS would have to take ‘emergency action’ such as staff vacancy freezes.

He added: ‘It will also mean the politicians having to suspend some of their ambitions about the new things they want to do while some of the money that’s being promised to the NHS is spent dealing with that particular operational problem.’

He told the BBC: ‘We need to institute proper financial discipline in the system. . . and to make some short-term decisions, to enable us to be in a position where literally we’re not building on sand; that actually there is a stable financial base on which you then can take forward the big changes that are needed.’

Last autumn, Nicholson’s successor Simon Stevens set out a five-year plan for the NHS in which he said the health service would need an extra £8bn by 2020 – something the Tories and Liberal Democrats have committed to in this campaign.

Nicholson said it would be ‘helpful’ if Labour made clear whether it too would commit to this figure, which he said needed to be spent at the beginning of the next parliament.

The call for an extra £8bn a year was on the basis that the NHS could make £22bn of efficiency savings.

But Nicholson cast doubt on whether the NHS could deliver this scale of savings, saying it was ‘a big ask’.

He said: ‘There is no healthcare system in the world that’s delivered this scale. But you could get close.

‘But it means actually a united political, clinical and managerial leadership in the NHS with a proper debate and discussion with the population about what this all means in practice.’