After a Christmas period in which the NHS was under serious pressure, with operations being cancelled and patients waiting for hours in ambulances and being turned away due to a lack of hospital beds, it was no surprise that Jeremy Corbyn chose to devote the first PMQs of 2018 to Britain’s health service.
The Labour leader reminded May that before Christmas she had assured the house that the NHS was better prepared for winter than ever before – so why were 17,000 people left waiting in the backs of ambulances in the last week of December?
May apologised to those who had their operations and admissions to hospital delayed, but maintained that the NHS had been prepared with more flu vaccines, more beds made available and, for the first time, urgent GP appointments available over the Christmas period around the country.
Corbyn retorted that Cams (common area maintenance charges) budgets had been raided, and that May recognised that there was a crisis because she wanted to sack Jeremy Hunt as health secretary in this week’s reshuffle “but was too weak to do it”. If the NHS was so well prepared, why were 55,000 operations cancelled in June?
May said that while “week in, week out” Corbyn gave the impression that the NHS was failing, the reality was that there were 2.9 million more people going to A&E ever year and 2m more operations. “We should be proud of the NHS,” she said, “identified as the number one health system in the world.”
Corbyn responded with the statistics that the number of elderly people rushed into A&E from care homes was up 62%, and that a quarter of those homes needed improvement. Given the failure of health and social care, “why has the health secretary been rewarded with a new job title”? (Hunt has been made health and social care secretary.)
May said Labour had been urging greater integration between health and social care, and that the way forward was grassroots collaboration so that elderly people could be treated in their homes.
Corbyn said funds had been siphoned off to private companies including Virgin Care in Sussex, the health secretary’s area. “Can she assure patients that less money intended for patient care will be spent feathering the nests of shareholders?” He added that under May’s government, Virgin Care got £200m in the past year, up 50% from the year before. In refusing to be reshuffled, Hunt may have said that he would not abandon ship, “but under his captaincy the ship is sinking”.
May finished by saying that the NHS could only be properly funded with a strong economy. She brought up an interview in the Spectator with Angela Rayner, who described Labour’s policy as “shit or bust”. May asked where Rayner was, only to be told that she was undergoing medical treatment herself. May said she apologised “unreservedly”, going on to say that by Rayner’s description, a Labour government would be bust, and it was high-risk for jobs and high-risk for the NHS.
In the light of the winter crisis, and the cancellation last week of around 50,000 operations to free up beds and staff for A&E patients, health was an open goal for Corbyn this week and he was solid and convincing, quite comfortably getting the upper hand. But it was not quite the clear walkover that some Labour MPs may have expected, and May was reasonably resilient.
That is because both leaders had a point: it is perfectly possible for NHS planning to be better than ever, and yet hospitals still to be stretched to an extent that leaves some patients suffering an appalling service. Corbyn put the case against May well, but his best question was probably his first, where he managed to use May’s answer at the last PMQs of 2017 against her. (A good example of how a lacklustre PMQs performance, which was how I judged Corbyn’s at the end of December, can nevertheless set a boobytrap for the future.)
The payment to Virgin Care in Surrey sounded as if it was worth developing at greater length, and Corbyn could have probed May more aggressively about the relative meaninglessness of her social care name change at the Department of Health.
May was better than in some of the other NHS-focused PMQs because it sounded as if she was engaging with what Corbyn said, not just reading out statistics, and she got the balance about right between apologising and defending her record. You could tell that she felt reasonably confident because she did not resort to banging on about Wales until question four. Her reference to Rayner being absent backfired when she was told Rayner was ill, but May had the sense to apologise fully and quickly, which allowed her to recover her stride quite well.
“It was in unparliamentary language – it included the word bust.
Theresa May on Angela Rayner saying Labour economic policy was “shit or bust”.
What will she say to the 17,000 people kept waiting in the back of ambulances in the week before Christmas? Is it “nothing is perfect”?
Jeremy Corbyn throws back May’s words on The Andrew Marr Show.
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