A week sure is a long time in politics. On Monday, the General Election campaign kicked off with Labour leader Ed Miliband addressing activists in Salford. His campaign promises included a guaranteed GP appointment within 48 hours and a £2.5 billion Time to Care fund to support more clinical staff. The event included a BBC reporter being heckled by Labour Party supporters for suggesting that Miliband was scaremongering about the NHS.
Meanwhile the Conservatives gathered senior figures in London in a venue called Altitude 360 to attempt to demolish Labour’s policy promises via an economic analysis suggesting that total borrowing would increase by £20.7bn. The choice was simple: chaos under Labour versus competence under the Tories.
By this morning (Wednesday), the headlines were a government’s nightmare. NHS England figures showed official figures showed accident and emergency units in England recording their worst performance figures for a decade. The airwaves were filled with doctors, nurses, NHS chief executives and patients describing the problems. David Cameron and health secretary Jeremy Hunt were forced into ‘crisis, what crisis?’ defence mode.
So, a PR own goal for the Tories and an early win for Labour on one of the key battlegrounds of the next election.
I wouldn’t blame David Cameron for feeling a little queasy today. How many highly paid policy advisers and media specialists does it take to prevent this kind of PR disaster? The timing couldn’t be worse. But even if it had been better, it’s not possible to spin the reality that patients are now seeing on the ground, across the country.
Turn the clock back nearly five years and wholesale change in the NHS wasn’t even mentioned in the Conservative Party manifesto. Yet within months of the Coalition agreement, the then Health Secretary Andrew Lansley was announcing the biggest shake up of the health service in living memory. Taken alongside demographic drivers and cuts in social care that have largely happened below the radar (being subsumed into general local authority budgets), the perfect storm has had a long time to gather.
People are really reluctant to criticise the NHS. Public trust in the service has remained high so far. That doesn’t mean that voters won’t blame politicians if the headlines continue this way.