Community healthcare providers such as nurses, pharmacists and mental health centres will form part of Labour’s reform agenda to ease the pressure on the National Health Service (NHS), the party has announced.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting outlined Labour’s plan for GP reforms on Friday, which would see the expansion of “neighbourhood health services” to cut waiting times and give patients a greater range of choice in accessing appointments.
“It is time to make the NHS as much about neighbourhood health services as it is a National Health Service,” said Mr Streeting. “Labour is looking at how we can get patients the help they need from a wider range of healthcare professionals closer to home.”
His speech comes as the NHS faces the biggest crisis in its 75-year history, with record waiting times for emergency services and a backlog of 7.2 million patients waiting to be seen.
Mr Streeting stressed the solution was to support primary care, which includes nursing, pharmacies and general practice.
“The front door to the NHS is broken, the exit door is blocked," he said. "Pouring ever-increasing funds into secondary care will never be enough to meet the growing demand created by the failure to reform. We have got to stop the obsession with simply pouring more money into hospitals.”
The focus on primary care services within communities would help “reduce the intolerable pressure” that is currently placed on general practice.
“Our plan to cut GP waiting times goes to the heart of the crisis in the NHS. It is a workforce crisis,” said Mr Streeting, adding that the NHS had lost 2,000 GPs since 2017. “They are overburdened, forced to look after an extra 350 patients each, it is not sustainable,” he added.
“More care will be moved into communities and unnecessary red tape that delays patients care and wastes GPs’ time should be cut. Why shouldn't patients be able to go to their local pharmacy to receive simple things that they currently get at GP surgeries, like vaccinations?”
Labour’s agenda would also allow patients to choose which GP they would like to see, and whether or not they would want a face-to-face appointment. “Patients will have greater control over their health care,” he said. “Many people, myself included, don't necessarily want to have to travel to their practice and would much rather a phone or video call.”
To achieve this, Labour would train an extra 7,500 doctors, as well as 10,000 more nurses and midwives, and 5,000 health visitors each year, Mr Streeting said. They will also create community hubs for mental health and women’s health.
He also pledged to make it easier for junior doctors to progress to consultant level. “There are things that the government could do in the here and now, not least the bottleneck that we see for junior doctors wanting to move into consultant roles or into general practice,” he said.
He acknowledged that it would take at least a decade for these reforms to bear fruit. "If we show improvement in the first term of a Labour government, people would give us a second term, so that over the course of a 10-year period, we can give people an NHS that they're proud of again," he said.
Labour would pay for these reforms by abolishing non-domicile status, which Mr Streeting estimates would generate £3 billion ($3.71 billion) in tax revenue. “We can afford to both fund the biggest expansion of the NHS workforce in history, and also provide free primary school breakfast clubs in every school,” he said. “Patients need doctors and nurses more than the wealthiest need a tax break.”
Mr Streeting described Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to cut NHS waiting lists as “unambitious”. “If there are 7.21 million patients waiting for treatment next month, instead of the 7.22 million waiting this month, he could farcically claim he has achieved it,” he said.
He criticised the government’s focus on making “structural change” to the NHS. “The Tories are the party of top-down, bureaucratic reorganisations,” he said. “Shuffling the deck chairs won't stop the ship going down.”