Jeremy Hunt has acknowledged the NHS will need “significantly more funding” over the next decade, as he faced calls from Labour to quit for losing the confidence of doctors, patients and the prime minister.
The health secretary clung on to his job in the reshuffle despite Theresa May’s attempts to move him, but has been under severe pressure since then over reports of a dire situation in hospitals across the country.
In an opposition day debate, MPs lined up with a deluge of stories about hospitals at crisis point in their constituencies. Paula Sherriff, the MP for Dewsbury, said patients were “being treated in cleaning cupboards” and there were “six patients in four-bed bays without lockers, curtains or call bells”.
Hunt disputed Labour’s claims that the NHS was “on its knees” and argued the health service was better prepared than in previous years for a surge in patients over winter. The health secretary also insisted that NHS England had ordered hospitals not to cancel cancer operations, which are urgent.
But he acknowledged there was unprecedented pressure on the NHS and said he would be in favour of a 10-year settlement for the health service that involved “significantly more funding”.
“We need to build a national consensus as to how we are going to find that funding. And my own view is that we should try and do that for a 10-year period, not a five-year period,” he said. More funding would either involve tax rises, cuts to other public spending or borrowing.
However, Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said the crisis was one of the government’s own making.
“This is not just a winter crisis. This is an all-year round funding crisis, a year-round staffing crisis, a year-round social care crisis, a year-round health inequality crisis – manufactured in Downing Street by this government,” he said.
“Isn’t the truth that doctors and nurses have lost confidence in him, patients have lost confidence in him, the prime minister it seems has lost confidence in him? He fights for his own job but he won’t fight for the NHS.
“Our patients are crying out for change and they will look at the health secretary still in post today and see – to coin a phrase – nothing has changed, nothing has changed.”
Earlier, Jeremy Corbyn used the first prime minister’s questions of 2018 to castigate May for presiding over a crisis in the NHS, chiding her for being “too weak” to sack Hunt.
“She told the house the NHS was better prepared for winter than ever before,” Corbyn said. “So what words of comfort does the prime minister have to the 17,000 patients waiting in the back of ambulances in the last week of December. Is it that nothing is perfect, by any chance?”
The prime minister reiterated her apologies to patients who had seen operations postponed or had been forced to wait in ambulances, but insisted the health service was properly funded and fully ready to face the winter.
May responded: “I fully accept that the NHS is under pressure over winter. It is regularly under pressure at winter times.
“I’ve been very clear – I apologise to those people who’ve had their operations delayed, and to those people who have had their admissions to hospital delayed. But it is, indeed, the case that the NHS was better prepared than ever before.”
She cited statistics on the increased take-up of flu vaccines, a rise in acute beds and the availability of GP appointments over Christmas.
Corbyn turned his attention to Monday’s chaotic cabinet reshuffle, during which Hunt managed to talk May out of moving him to the business department and instead taking on an expanded social care remit.
“We know the prime minister recognises there’s a crisis in our NHS because she wanted to sack the health secretary last week, but was too weak to do it,” he said.
May again apologised for the postponed operations and also asked Corbyn for further details of a case the Labour leader raised. A woman, Vicky, said her 82-year-old mother had spent 13 hours on a trolley in a hospital corridor, after a three-hour delay between the first 999 call and her arriving at hospital.
But the prime minister criticised Corbyn’s negativity about the NHS, and said Labour’s record of running the NHS in Wales had led health spending to fall.
Corbyn replied that she “needed to understand that it’s her policies that are pushing our NHS into crisis. Tax cuts for the super-rich and big business and paid for by longer waiting lists, ambulance delays, staff shortages and cuts to social care.”
This article was written by Peter Walker and Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 10th January 2018 18.24 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010