Richard Sloggett, until recently an adviser to Matt Hancock, on what the political party conference season and recent government announcements mean for the NHS.
The removal of the banners and ring of steel from the Midland Hotel in Manchester tells us that the party conference season is over for another year.
Whilst Brexit clearly dominated and divided, the importance of the NHS to an upcoming election campaign was clear.
Capitalising in Manchester
In time honoured fashion, the Conservatives used the Sunday of the conference to put the NHS front and centre of their programme.
The announcement by the secretary of state for health and social care to build six new hospitals and provide seed funding to develop business cases for 34 more, as part of a new Health Infrastructure Plan providing a tangible NHS offer for voters. This followed an early administration commitment to release much needed funds for individual trusts to deliver hospital upgrades.
The public is yet to see or feel the benefits of the long-term NHS funding settlement from the previous administration.
With backlog maintenance problems and staffing shortages impacting day-to-day service delivery, Number 10 is banking on a promise of upgraded and new infrastructure to demonstrate the government’s commitment to the future.
For NHS chief executives and representative organisations, who have campaigned strongly on the need for such investment, this new wave of government enthusiasm is an opportunity that will be quickly grabbed.
And with a multi-year spending review to be developed following the election there is a clear opening for further bids on much needed estate transformation and upgrades.
More specific criticisms that mental health was overlooked in the plans and how the new hospital investments align with the primary care priorities of the long-term plan, will need to be carefully addressed in the weeks ahead by both government and NHS leaders.
The problem of opposition in Brighton
One accusation that cannot be levelled at the opposition is that they have taken their eye off the NHS.
Whilst the government follows the Dominic Cummings playbook of a simple NHS message, the Labour team is presenting a broad range of NHS policy ideas of varying degrees of radicalism.
Whether it be a new NHS green deal, scrapping prescription charges, a commitment to free personal care and most controversially the creation of a national drug manufacturer (excellently analysed and unpicked by Tony Hockley here). Labour is certainly not short on plans for what it would do with the NHS should it enter government.
Plans for a winter election whilst simultaneously pushing the NHS higher up the agenda, alongside Brexit uncertainty, will bring even higher levels of attention than normal on service performance
However, there is a strong feeling of frustration at its lack of public cut through. Recent ComRes polling shows the prime minister within just two points of Jeremy Corbyn of who is most trusted on the NHS, neutralising an area where Labour needs to be significantly further ahead.
How Labour addresses this remains a major political headache.
Ashworth’s team will need to work out how hard to tackle the capital challenges of the NHS, having ramped up activity recently. Every time Labour now raise it, they will be giving the government a chance to repeat their main conference pledge.
Meanwhile in London….
This conference season was one of the most extraordinary of modern times with attention split between the host cities and London for court rulings and hostile Parliamentary debates.
NHS England and Improvement’s board meeting in the capital may not have generated as much coverage, passion or division but important updates on Brexit planning, new legislative proposals and transforming primary care were all tabled, discussed and moved on.
It provided a timely reminder that whilst the politicians are out on the conference circuit, the NHS leadership gets on with the job in hand, translating political priorities and commitments into action.
With the NHS set to be central to the campaign, NHS leaders have wasted little time in making their case for new money on capital, workforce, public health and social care to help them deliver.
But this money has a price.
Plans for a winter election whilst simultaneously pushing the NHS higher up the agenda, alongside Brexit uncertainty, will bring even higher levels of attention than normal on service performance.
With a potentially difficult flu season and evidence of the Clinical Review of Standards pilots for emergency medicine on the way, expect NHS performance and what can be done about it to be back in the national headlines again very soon.
And it will be whoever emerges from this scrutiny best that will be setting the health agenda at next year’s conference season whether in Liverpool, Birmingham or London.