A Labour government in Britain would abolish the “20th century model of care” upon which the National Health Service is being run, the shadow health secretary has said.
Wes Streeting said if the opposition party won the next general election it would introduce a new template for the NHS built on “value for money”.
At the Institute for Public Policy Research’s health conference in London on Thursday, he said the private healthcare sector would be used to help clear NHS waiting lists and doctors’ pension rules would be reformed to discourage them from taking early retirement.
He said his party “has higher standards for patients” compared to those held by the ruling Conservative Party.
A win for Labour at the next general election would offer hope of a breakthrough in the faltering NHS, he said.
“The next Labour government will agree a plan with the NHS to bring down waiting times to safe and acceptable levels and begin working towards the standards the NHS should already be meeting as soon as we enter office,” he said.
“Conservative mismanagement of our public services over the past 12 years is a major cause of this doom spiral that Britain is in of low growth, low investment in schools and the NHS, and ever-increasing taxes on working with people. You cannot build a healthy economy without a healthy society.
“So there's no time to wait. If Labour were in government now, we would be pulling every lever available to us to bring down NHS waiting times.
“We would fix the doctors pension rules which perversely incentivise doctors to retire early when they are needed more than ever before.”
Spare capacity in the private sector would also be used to alleviate pressure on the NHS, a policy he said the Tory government had failed to introduce.
He bemoaned figures which show NHS operations this year were down 12 per cent on pre-pandemic levels “despite the enormous backlog”. At the same time, private healthcare providers say they have the capacity to carry out 130 per cent of the procedures they were conducting for the NHS before the Covid crisis, he said. “The government hasn't made full use of it,” he said.
“Had a Labour government been in office this year, hundreds of thousands more patients would have been treated on the NHS in private hospitals,” he said, adding that the care would be funded through taxes.
While he acknowledged his plan may sound like “a betrayal of left-wing values” to some voters, he said it was a fair approach. “I say that there is nothing progressive about leaving working-class people languishing on waiting lists for months and years longer than they need to, often in serious pain, just because it offends some people's middle-class sensibilities,” he said. “I’m not going to leave working-class people priced out and left out while those who can pay are seen faster.”
The politician warned the government that unless the NHS was rebuilt, the UK would not "escape the sluggish productivity that’s resulting in low growth and high taxes”.
He cited record figures showing there were more people on waiting lists ahead of the busy winter season, and waiting times have reached historic highs. With 7.2 million people waiting for NHS care, many people were “finding it impossible to see a GP”, with some forced to wait for up to 24 hours in accident and emergency units.
“Behind the statistics are people suffering for months and even years, putting their lives on hold because of their pain and discomfort,” he said, describing the situation as "grim".
Mr Streeting accused the Tories of “blaming anyone but themselves” and refusing to take responsibility for the state of public health services after 12 years in government.
“If the economy and the spiralling cost of living is the biggest crisis facing the country, the collapse of the NHS must be the second,” he said.
He blamed lengthy waiting lists and the prevalence of long Covid for the UK’s low economic growth, saying these factors meant many people who want to work are unable to do so.
Ambulance workers and nurses across the UK are set to take part in industrial action over the Christmas period. But Mr Streeting said if Labour was in No 10 it would negotiate pay, working conditions and jobs with unions and pull out all the stops to prevent staff from striking.
Earlier, Lord Ara Darzi, co-chairman of the IPPR's commission on health and prosperity, said the NHS was heading into "a winter like no other". He said the health service and other public institutions were "in danger of being ossified" due to challenges such as the cost-of-living crisis and aftershocks of Brexit.