NHS Question Time: Is the NHS sustainable in its current form?

Health experts and commentators hit out at NHS underfunding and said the health service may have to adapt to survive in a Question Time-style debate at the RCGP annual conference in Glasgow.

RCGP Question Time panel (Photo: Pete Hill)
RCGP Question Time panel (Photo: Pete Hill)

Asked by an audience member whether 'the NHS as we know it will be affordable in the future’, a panel including RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, GPs, healthcare leaders and leading figures from politics set out wide-ranging views on the future of the health service.

Left-wing columnist, political activist and author Owen Jones said the NHS ‘should be the envy of the entire world’ but that, under the current government, it was being ‘run into the ground’. He hit out at warm words of support for the NHS, but warned that this was not being matched by funding.

Considering the wealth of the UK as a whole, he argued, if we can't afford one of the nation's most valued institutions 'we might as well give up'.

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Video: This government is running the NHS into the ground, says Owen Jones

NHS funding

Increasing taxation on the wealthiest in society would enable the NHS to ‘provide for an ageing population’. Support for the NHS, he said, was a matter of political will, which did not seem to exist in the current government.

NHS Confederation chair and former Conservative health secretary Stephen Dorrell agreed that the NHS was 'sustainable and it is affordable’.

When compared to other healthcare systems around the world, the NHS delivers ‘good quality care at a more affordable rate’, and he said he was not in favour of changing the basis on which the service was funded.

Although government plans to increase NHS funding by £20bn a year in the coming years was welcome, the funding fell short of what was required. Research showed that the NHS needed a 4% increase in funding per year, not the 3% that the government plans will deliver, he told the conference.

Internal market

Some panelists warned that more immediate action was needed in order to save the NHS. Dr Vish Ratnasuriya, chair of the GP superpractice Our Health Partnership said that England was heading towards a ‘crux point’ thanks to an internal market that has caused the NHS to ‘fragment’ over the past couple of decades.

He called for the healthcare system to be ‘knitted together’ to become a ‘single entity’ to ensure its survival.

RCGP Scotland chair Dr Carey Lunan warned that tackling demand was key to the survival of the NHS. She said that without protecting the ‘founding principles of the NHS, which is healthcare based on need and not on demand’, the system in its current form was ‘doomed’.

She argued: ‘If we don’t address the public expectations of what our NHS can be expected to provide 70 years after its inception then we may as well stop now and stop devising more models of care - because you can keep building bigger multi storey car parks and more people will park there.

'What we need is a national engagement campaign about what is sustainable and what is reasonable for our state funded NHS to be providing in 2018. This needs to be cross party and this needs to be led by the healthcare professionals who work on the frontline.’

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