The article written by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, on 14 January 2022 in the Guardian newspaper.
The next Labour government will build a new Britain based on security, prosperity and respect. To do that, we must renew the very foundations of our country. That will begin with renewal of the health service.
The NHS must be resilient, able to meet the challenges of the future, and focused on prevention as well as cure. It must be there to protect us in the future, rather than requiring us to protect it in the present.
It is to the country’s great misfortune that at this crucial time we have a Conservative government yet again mired in scandal, led by a prime minister who is out of control, out of touch and out of ideas. Senior cabinet ministers are spending their days plotting how and when to dispose of him. Precious time is being wasted on the latest internal psychodrama of the Tory party instead of sorting out the mess they have made.
Nowhere is that mess more profound than in the health service. Twelve years ago, the Tories inherited a strong NHS from Labour. Waiting times were the shortest on record. Today they are the highest since records began. Across the country, people are struggling to see a doctor, get the care they require or have a much needed operation.
The claim from the government benches that all the NHS’s ills are down to Covid is simply not true. Waiting times were on the rise long before the virus showed up. Life expectancy had stalled. We went into the pandemic short of 100,000 staff in England and with patients unable to be discharged from beds. Lockdowns were necessary to stop the NHS falling over – but the reason it was in such a perilous state was because the Tories had made it so.
Without a great renewal, the NHS will continue to be vulnerable to new variants and new viruses. That, in turn, will leave the country vulnerable. This is unsustainable. Lockdowns come at enormous cost to people’s lives and health, and the country’s economy. Being forced into a hokey-cokey of restrictions will only do more harm in the long term.
Instead we must fix the damage the Tories have done, to make the NHS more resilient again. That means investing properly. Labour would get waiting lists down by getting staff numbers up: recruiting, training and – crucially – retaining the staff we need. We would treat care workers with respect by giving them real job security and rewarding them properly. And we would transform social care to give older and disabled people the support they need to live the life they choose.
Our focus will be on the sort of renewal that has only ever been possible under Labour governments. Just as the Blair government refocused the health service on outcomes, we would switch the focus from simply treating illnesses to preventing them. When I was director of public prosecutions, hardly a case came across my desk where early intervention couldn’t have turned lives around before they unravelled. The same is true in health.
Achieving this sort of change means rethinking how the healthcare system works. It will require us to focus on the patient rather than just the system, the community as much as the community hospital. If we are to keep people well and at home we must strengthen those services that in turn strengthen entire communities, such as adequate mental health provision.
The NHS needs to be properly funded but, simply throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer. Instead, we need to think radically about how the NHS can deal with the challenges of the future. We would be forensic with investment. Technology has the potential to transform how we live and manage our lives, while also reducing pressures. It will be possible to get early warnings about diseases we may be vulnerable to. “Hospital at home” systems will allow patients to track and report their conditions, with remote supervision.
Tackling the immediate crisis, future-proofing the NHS and shifting our focus to prevention is all part of Labour’s new contract with the British people. It will provide the security that comes with knowing the health service will be there for you and your loved ones when you need it. It will increase our nation’s health and wellbeing, giving us all the chance to prosper. And it will provide people with the dignity and self-respect that come with being able to have control over your own life. The Tories don’t get any of this. They think it’s enough for the NHS to merely survive. Under Labour, the NHS – and Britain – will once again thrive.