The NHS will receive an extra £3.3bn in each of the next two years, the chancellor has announced, but experts warn the cash is probably only half of what is needed to keep the health service afloat.
Jeremy Hunt told the Commons during his autumn statement he had been assured the funding would mean the NHS can hit its “key priorities”. Its chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, later issued a statement welcoming the funding, saying it showed that “the government has been serious about its commitment to prioritise the NHS”.
However, it was only last month that NHS England, the organisation Pritchard leads, had forecast a £7bn shortfall in its funding next year, which it warned it could not plug with efficiency measures alone.
“The NHS warned it needed more money to cope with the impact of inflation on its costs,” said Nigel Edwards, the chief executive of the independent thinktank Nuffield Trust. “Today’s autumn statement has provided much-needed extra cash from April over the next two years, but this is only around half of what the NHS had warned last month would likely be needed.”
Hunt pledged to grow the NHS budget in 2023-24 and 2024-25 by £3.3bn in each year.
But Edwards warned that would not account for the £2.5bn worth of inflation and other unexpected cost pressures the NHS has faced in the current financial year.
“The impact of today’s funding announcement is that real terms health spending per head after adjusting for age will increase by less than 1% for the next two years,” Edwards added. “This is compared to the long-term average of 2.6% and comes at a time when the NHS cannot afford to stand still and is desperately trying to increase the work it can do to clear record waiting times.”
More than 7 million people in England are on the NHS waiting list for treatment.
Steven McIntosh, an executive director of the charity Macmillan Cancer Support, said the new funding was a “positive”, but added that, “realistically, soaring inflation will restrict how much of a dent into cancer backlogs this support can truly make”.
Hunt said the extra £6.6bn for the NHS showed a “Conservative government putting the NHS first”. But he also urged the NHS “to join all public services in tackling waste and inefficiency” as he set out plans for the former Labour health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, to work with local health leaders and ensure the NHS operates “efficiently with appropriate autonomy and accountability”.
“We want Scandinavian quality alongside Singaporean efficiency, both better outcomes for citizens and better value for taxpayers,” Hunt said.
“That does not mean asking people on the frontline – often exhausted and burned out – to work harder, which would not be possible or fair. But it does mean asking challenging questions about how to reform all our public services for the better.”
Hunt also pledged to set out a new long-term plan for the NHS on the number of workers it needs, which health organisations and experts have long been calling for. He acknowledged the biggest issue in the health service was the workforce shortage.
On social care, Hunt reheated a government promise of a £500m emergency fund to help unblock hospital beds taken up by people who were medically fit to leave. About 13,500 beds are currently occupied by “those who should be at home”, he said.
The funding was first pledged in September by the health secretary at the time, Thérèse Coffey. The Guardian recently revealed that hospitals and care services had not seen a penny of the cash,as hospitals struggled with thousands of patients healthy enough to leave but unable to be discharged because of the crisis in social care.
Richard Murray, chief executive of the independent health thinktank King’s Fund, said the extra cash for the NHS was “important recognition” from the government that it was “on its knees” trying to meet soaring demand and keep patients safe.
“However, with NHS funding on a knife-edge, it will force the service to focus solely on its top priorities and go further on an already ambitious efficiency programme.”