Labour puts plan to cure Britain’s national health service at heart of election campaign

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting says re-electing Tories would be like ‘giving the matches back to the arsonists’

Britain’s National Health Service is one of its most cherished institutions, part of the fabric of its national identity. Yet the system is choked with up to 7.3 million people languishing on NHS waiting lists and GP and dentist surgeries similarly swamped.

The chaos means the NHS is at the heart of the general election campaign, well ahead of other issues such as immigration in the minds of voters. Both main parties, Labour and the Conservatives, have made a promise to cut waiting lists the centrepiece of their pitches in advance of the July 4th election.

With Labour an average of 21 points ahead in polls, its shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, is odds-on to be the next person tasked with fixing the mess.

On Wednesday, the smooth-talking 41-year-old took Labour’s roadshow of health promises to England’s West Midlands and to Worcester, a handsome cathedral city dotted with Tudor buildings, while the river Severn coils lazily along the western edge of town.

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As well as being the home of the Lea and Perrins group that makes the famous condiment Worcestershire Sauce, the city is a battleground seat in the upcoming election.

It stayed red throughout the years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, turning back to blue with the return to power of the Conservative party in 2010. It has stayed that way since. For the last 45 years whichever party has held this constituency has also held the keys to Downing Street.

Win Worcester, win power.

Streeting, a pugnacious centrist in the mould of a 1990s young Blairite, warned voters on Wednesday that a return to government of the Tories, however unlikely polls suggest it might be, risked “giving the matches back to the arsonists”.

“The NHS is on the ballot paper,” said Streeting, who claimed the numbers on NHS waiting lists would top 10 million under another term of Tory government.

With his party leader Keir Starmer by his side, the pair visited student nurses and paramedics at a local medical college at the University of Worcester.

As the students stood around them in a huddle in the university’s atrium, Streeting, along with Starmer, laid out their vision to essentially halve NHS waiting lists by the end of the first five-year term of a Labour government. The set piece also gave Starmer an hour of cover to talk about policy while the row over the future of rebel Labour MP Diane Abbott swirled on the media airwaves.

The NHS target is for 92 per cent of patients on lists to wait no more than 18 weeks for treatment, but the target hasn’t been met since 2016. At last count, barely 43 per cent of NHS patients meet the 18-week treatment threshold.

A chunk of the problem lies in long waits for the diagnostic scans that are often necessary before treatment can start. About 1.6 million Britons are waiting on scans. Streeting and Labour have promised capital investment to double the number of scanning machines to free up the clog.

Streeting’s grand plan to fix the NHS also contains a pledge to provide up to 40,000 new appointments for patients each week by lengthening opening hours and tempting staff into working more overtime, as well as hiring new doctors and nurses. Labour plans to pay for its health plan out of the £5 billion (€5.9 billion) it says it can save annually by clamping down on tax avoidance.

After fielding questions from the students, many of whom were already worried about staff burnout, Starmer and Streeting moved a couple of miles down the road to a local football clubhouse where a gathering of Labour Party members heard from patients who have been let down by the NHS.

Stephen Tyrrell, an RAF veteran who wore an eye patch, said he had been waiting since 2020 for an operation. “You just don’t get what you need from the NHS any more,” he said.

Streeting roused the room of party supporters with a series of funny put-downs of the Tories. “We might laugh, but this clown show isn’t funny,” he said.

On the fringes of the gathering, other Labour supporters reflected on the parlous state of the health service. Local man Richard Shiels, there with his wife Alison, said his mother had died recently. He was critical of the care she received. “I saw it first hand,” he said. “The health service has been shattered almost beyond repair.”

The Shielses and many others seem ready to bank on Labour to fix it.

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