Last week, the former Health Secretary Alan Milburn said it would be a “fatal mistake” for Labour to fight the election by spending on, but not reforming, the NHS. He was joined by another Labour luminary – Lord Darzi – on Friday, as a clear group appeared to line up against the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham’s agenda.
These attacks are not just unseemly, but wrong as well. Look behind the headlines and Burnham’s agenda is the right one: to reenvision the National Health Service as a National Health and Care Service. Now we need more detail on how this is to be done.
It’s clear the NHS can’t survive without fundamental reform. As an adviser to this government during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act in 2012, and more recently on care for people with learning disabilities and on winter pressures in Accident and Emergency, I’ve seen the gravity of the situation first hand.
I’ve also seen there are no easy cuts to make. Cuts without strategic thinking have fragmented not only healthcare but also social care across the country. This directly harms our most vulnerable citizens. It means more people falling through the cracks of a breaking structure. We are on borrowed time and on the cusp of a reality where crises like the one we are living through in A&E this winter will become the norm. And it is largely our legislators’ fault.
Poor social care causes more damage every day. Cuts to council budgets have trimmed care for the elderly to the bone. Charity CEOs tell me of reverse auctions for local health contracts being won by the very cheapest service, whatever form it may take. Some private operators – though they are often very effective – may bid so low that they make a loss on social care and recoup the money elsewhere.
In A&E, these cuts send more older people into hospital for preventable problems. Often 20 per cent of beds are filled by elderly people who aren’t ill, but end up in hospital because no one else can help. They can’t be discharged because there’s no social care to help them at home. Cutting costs money; when we run out of beds it can also cost lives.
Burnham’s plan is to price in these very real externalities of running a health service. The vision is to change the NHS by replacing competition with integration. When Burnham talks about integrating the work of public, private and third sector providers, he is indicating a situation in which new services are created by new kinds of collaboration.
Collaboration rather than competition becomes the driver of patient choice. This is not merely theoretical. This winter I have chaired an NHS taskforce to get charities in to 29 emergency departments that are under pressure to tackle the immediate problem. We hope to get the charities into action early next week. We will be giving vulnerable patients a choice to receive community care that the market has failed to provide.
No doubt market liberals of the left and right will sniff at this vision of a world of choice beyond how they define it. But politicians of all parties must keep their nerve. The idea of a health service rescued by cuts and efficiencies is debunked. Now they must scale up the radical approach into a sustained plan of action.
They can build on pilots like the charity intervention into Accident and Emergency, on innovations such as the coalition’s attempts to pilot bringing together budgets for health and social care at a local level, and they can create a new, integrated plan for health and care. The Burnham plan may not be easy to digest or to do – but it is needed.