The sugar tax shouldn't distract us from the complete neglect of NHS England
The ‘sugar tax’ was the kind of rabbit out of the hat that we’ve come to expect from George Osborne.
It dominated the immediate headlines, it led to news sources across the nation leading with an understandably triumphant Jamie Oliver leaping breathlessly around College Green, having raced across London from his office, so the story went.
The actual decision to introduce the tax is a small sensible step – based for once, unusually for this government, on the advice of medical experts. The Green Party has no argument with it, in fact has been calling for it for some time (although it might be introduced rather sooner than two years’ hence.)
But it should not be allowed to convey the impression – as it rather seems to have succeeded in doing – that the government is taking serious steps to deal with the health issues facing the nation.
Most critically, there was nothing in this entire budget for the NHS in England.
This, at a time when widespread accounts indicate a health service on the edge, desperately struggling to keep up with demand with inadequate resources, particularly in hospitals. This on the very day that the British Medical Association voted to have extraordinary meeting to discuss how to rescue the NHS from collapse.
The NHS is seeing its resources squeezed at the same time as demand is rising with an ageing, growing population. Costs are rising for increasingly complex, and expensive, technology and as a result of failures of workforce planning, and privatisation is squeezing money away from healthcare into private profits.
Spending is planned to rise in total, over the period 2010 to 2020, by just 0.9 percent a year – spending as a percentage of GDP falling to 6.6 per cent by 2020, down from 7.3 per cent in 2014. Even with private spending (available only to the few) added, our total of 8.7 per cent is well below that of France and Germany, which both spend around 11 per cent.
And all of this while the Health Secretary has so profoundly mishandled relationships with precious NHS staff that there have been a series of strikes. The future supply of nurses is threatened by plans to abolish bursaries that have enabled staff to study without impossible financial pressures.
There was also scant attention to public health beyond the sugar tax. Tobacco duty is rising, there’s some minor further control measures of tobacco, but that’s it.
Some of the pressure on the NHS might be eased, at least in the medium- to longer-term, by spending on effective public health measures and planning, but of that there’s no sign.
Travel by private car is being encouraged. With the cost of motoring now at historic lows George Osborne might have helped pay for other measures (say not hitting the disabled so viciously) by ending the freeze on fuel duty, yet the continuation of that will be costing £450 million/year by 2020.
New roads are planned. What’s not heard of are measures to encourage walking and cycling as local transport, or support for local bus services. This is not only regressive (half of low income households have no car, while the vast majority of above-average income ones do) but also a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic.
It is really hard to overcome amazement, as the dust settles, that with the state of the NHS in England such a clear and pressing concern, the Chancellor made only the briefest of passing mentions to it.
It’s a clear dereliction of duty and one that’s likely to, that should, come back to haunt him.
Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.