The political landscape has shifted: Time now for action on health commitments

Our President Russell Viner reflects on last week’s UK General Election result and shares some early thoughts about what it means for the NHS, our members, and children and young people. 

As the year draws to a close, it’s worth looking back on the events of the last few weeks and what it means for all of us in 2020.

I know many of you have questions about what Friday’s election results mean for us, for our NHS and for the children and young people we work for. The time of year makes this even more acute, and I can’t remember a time when our profession was more collectively anxious about getting through winter.

The UK General Election campaign and the Conservative manifesto gave us a rough outline of the road ahead for the NHS in England. Health featured prominently as it always does but it seems fair to say there was a lot more heat than light. We have more certainty now: we’ve had commitments from the Prime Minister on the NHS, and now we need to see meaningful progress on policy. Some form of Brexit now appears certain - but we remain unclear how it will affect us and our NHS in each of the nations.

I will write to Ministers in the coming days, calling for the prioritisation of a child health strategy, investment in public health programmes and a plan to tackle the chronic workforce crisis in the NHS. This is not a wish list – these are just the basics of what we need to ensure patient safety, the delivery of high quality care, and proper staffing.

I will make this case publicly and privately with ministers in the year ahead

I’m getting tired of writing words like ‘urgent’ and ‘crisis’, but this week’s England performance statistics show we have a long march ahead this winter. Our hospitals are 95% full already, community paediatrics is increasingly stretched and we have the worst A&E target numbers on record. We are now deep in the reserves of an exhausted system. We can’t go on like this and I will make this case publicly and privately with ministers in the year ahead.

Getting a hearing for child health in the corridors of power is a big part of my job. It can feel like an uphill battle at times and there’s no doubt we’ve had to work very hard to get children and young people on the policy agenda. But we made real and significant progress in the life of the last parliament in most of the UK nations. It’s been a tough time politically for those of us who want to see a major transformation in how we approach child health, but there are grounds for optimism, and we must continue to engage and make our case with the incoming government.

Some of this is about holding Ministers’ feet to the fire on existing commitments. The next UK Government has pledged to bring more nurses into the system - this is welcome and long overdue. We also agree that primary care is swamped and needs investment if we are to relieve the pressure on the rest of the system. The NHS Long Term Plan for England must now be implemented, fully funded as promised, in the first quarter of the year. For our own doctors, we have pushed for an urgent review of the UK’s pensions tax rules – which has had the effect of pushing consultants out of the health system due to huge tax bills in exchange for agreeing to take extra shifts. We’ve been assured of action and we will work with our colleagues across the sector to make sure we put pressure on the Government to plug this unnecessary drain.

More than 2.3 million of our children live in persistent poverty. This is completely unacceptable in one of the world’s richest countries

The next five years will also be vital for children and young people’s health and the picture as it stands is not a happy one. More than 2.3 million of our children live in persistent poverty. This is completely unacceptable in one of the world’s richest countries. The evidence shows that public health programmes can make a real difference here, and relatively quickly. In England the hacking away at the public health grant must stop and funding to vital programmes like breastfeeding, smoking cessation and health visiting should be restored. Scotland and Wales have more enlightened systems which we must preserve and also improve. We will also be engaging in the forthcoming vaccination strategy and our four-nation State of Child Health report, due in March, will set the course for our health policy campaigning across the UK.

I’ll have much more on this in the New Year when the dust has settled. I know it’s been a tough 12 months for many of you and a rest is badly needed. Once the Government is formed, we will use every possible opportunity to represent you and the people who need us. Many of you will be on call over Christmas and New Year, and while it will be tough, I know that the wonder of the Christmas season somehow uplifts even the most stressful situations. I wish you all a restful and happy time with family and friends over the holidays.