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Michael White: what the new government will mean for health

Cheer up, the election campaign is more or less over now and the country is finally bracing itself for the tricky bit.

Are we much the wiser about what our new government wants to do about the NHS or what it will actually be able to do in practice?

Since I was rude about Brown’s feeble NHS pitch here last week it is only fair to be rude about Nick Clegg’s

I have listened to David Cameron speaking several times during the election. I have listened to Nick Clegg. I even caught Gordon Brown sounding genuinely passionate about poverty and injustice on Monday night - something I have not heard him do properly for years.

It is Cameron who puzzles me most. I do not doubt his good will towards the NHS, what he likes to call the “three letters that sum up my priorities” because of his family tragedy.

HSJ Post-Election Briefing - Monday 10th May 2010

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“A brilliant thing” he called it on the last Saturday of the campaign, as everyone gets treated “without asking for your credit card”.

“Splendid, splendid”, as Willie Whitelaw used to say. But such laudable sentiments butter no parsnips (I am afraid that is a John Majorism), especially at a time of huge, looming cuts in the service.

The Tory leader clings to three specific promises. These are to increase health spending “by more than inflation every year”; to fund those extra cancer drugs with the money (read this bit carefully) saved on the NHS’s extra national insurance bill, which the Tories will cancel (plus better dentistry, 12/7 GP access etc); and to “contract for a better NHS”, which will replace “tick-boxing” targets with motivated, liberated staff.

Actually, it is much more sweeping. Check it out on the Tory website. Everything is in there - from an end to “forced” accident and emergency and maternity ward closures (naughty Andy Burnham did a bit of that at the Whittington in marginal North London last week) to an end to mixed sex wards.

Heaven help us! This will cost money we do not have. No, Britain’s debts are not in the Greek league, but they are bad and Greece’s problems could make ours worse.

Since I was rude about Brown’s feeble NHS pitch here last week it is only fair to be rude about Nick Clegg’s. I thought Norman Lamb’s HSJ interview last week was wholesomely honest in several ways, but I share HSJ’s editorial disdain for part elected health boards.

This from a chap whose leader has repeatedly condemned the “endless cycle of botched reorganisations” and promised “more power to staff and patients” instead of Labour’s centralising regime. Accountability and responsiveness are not the same as taking responsibility on ourselves, the voters, is it?

At the risk of offending the 2010 campaign’s pin-up boy, I can’t help contrasting Clegg’s routine attacks on NHS “administrators, managers and clerks” - more than there are NHS beds, he says, surely untrue - with his pandering to the Royal College of Nursing’s conference audience.

He did not quite call nurses “angels”, merely “the lifesavers as well as the shoulders to cry on, the healers as well as the comforters”. We know Mrs Clegg broke her elbow the other day and nurses helped her - but that is what nurses are paid to do.

It might have been braver to include a sentence to the effect that too many complaints about the NHS concern the quality of nursing care. Two friends of mine have said as much about the aforementioned Whittington. It is easier to pander.

Nick Clegg rightly says the virtuous Institute for Fiscal Studies says his cuts package is best and that he won’t ringfence NHS spending in the name of realism. But attacks on waste, red tape and top managers’ pay will not butter Lib Dem parsnips either.

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