UK general election 2024 – what are the parties saying about health?

By Dr Paul Gillen and Jack Prinzel

The timing of the UK general election came as a surprise to most. Less of a surprise was the general consensus that the NHS, social care, primary care and dentistry all require urgent attention. The general election is an opportunity for doctors across the UK to influence the debate around the health service both now, and in the future. The College recently published its health priorities for the general election and we would encourage doctors to use it as a springboard in their efforts to maintain and improve the practice of medicine.

Front and centre of the College’s health priorities is workforce. Doctors are working under more pressure than ever, resulting in low morale and burnout for many. We’re calling for action to address this. While recruitment into medicine is vital, all political parties must pledge to prioritise the health and wellbeing of existing medical staff. This includes, but is not limited to, providing adequate facilities for rest (e.g. after night shifts), spaces to carry out non-clinical work, and easily accessible hot food and drink so that healthcare staff can keep refreshed during their shifts, including nightshifts, when hot meals are harder to source in hospitals. Of course, none of this can be delivered without safe levels of staffing – this is where recruitment and retention is essential.

Alongside investment in recruitment, retention and staff wellbeing, the College notes the significant waiting lists in our NHS, right across the UK. The next government must address this head on. But it can only do so by addressing delayed discharges, meaning greater investment in measures to improve patient flow and more investment in social care. Investment in social care is vital to ensure that care packages and rehabilitation services are quickly available for people awaiting hospital discharge. More needs to be done to prevent unnecessary hospitalisation and to get people home from hospital as soon as they are able. The prevention of ill health is, of course, an important part of the solution too, and our health priorities includes a range of recommendations to help improve public health.

The Conservative Party

The Conservative Party have committed to increasing NHS spending above inflation to deliver safe and effective services, recruit more staff, and improve waiting times for primary, elective, cancer, and emergency care. As part of that commitment, the party continues to back the NHS's Long-Term Workforce plan and is vowing to recruit 28,000 more doctors to the NHS by the end of the next parliament. In addition, the party has placed a significant focus on bringing more care services into the community by pledging to expand primary care services by building or modernising 250 GP surgeries and 50 more Community Diagnostic Centres, resulting in an additional 2.5 million checks a year, as well as expanding Pharmacy First. On social care, the party aims to take forward the reforms in the 'People at the Heart of Care' White Paper, which includes ongoing work to professionalise the workforce and the planned implementation of reforms to cap social care costs starting from October 2025.

On public health, the Conservatives aim to take forward the Tobacco and Vapes Bill, to the first King’s Speech in their commitment to create a ‘smokefree generation’ – something that the College has specifically called for. Additionally, the party aims to tackle childhood and adult obesity and have said that they will legislate to restrict the advertising of products high in fat, salt and sugar which encourage people to consume unhealthy food and drink. And lastly, the Conservatives have pledged to introduce new digital health checks for an additional 250,000 people annually, aiming to reduce preventable strokes and heart attacks.

The Labour Party

The Labour Party has outlined its manifesto as a plan for recovery and to get the NHS ‘back on its feet'. They want to drive down waiting lists, improve GP access, and reform social care. The party has pledged to cut NHS waiting times, set up shared waiting lists, and drive more collaboration between hospitals. Labour has also committed to train thousands more GPs and ensure face-to-face appointments as part of what they call a 'Neighbourhood Health Service’. This will involve empowering community pharmacists to prescribe, enabling community health staff to refer people directly to hospital specialists, and piloting neighbourhood health teams to deliver care within local communities. Regarding social care, the party plans to implement longer-term reform by creating a 'National Care Service', and introduce national standards to ensure consistency of care, and as a result, develop a local partnership between the NHS and social care on hospital discharge.

On mental health, the Labour Party aims to recruit an additional 8,500 more mental health staff and set up 'Young Futures Hubs' in every community to provide mental health support for children and young people. The party is also committed to banning junk food advertising to children and the sale of high-caffeine energy drinks to those under 16. Labour plans to advance the Tobacco and Vapes Bill to prevent the next generation from legally buying cigarettes, ensure all hospitals integrate ‘opt-out’ smoking cessation interventions into routine care, and ban the branding and advertising of vapes to limit their appeal to children.

The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats have recognised the significant challenges in the NHS and have pledged to tackle both the front door and back door crisis, by investing in public health, by improving access to GP services and by fixing the crisis in social care. The party aims to ensure that everybody can access a GP appointment within 7 days, or 24 hrs in urgent cases, by increasing the number of full-time equivalent GPs by 8,000. Retaining more experienced GPs will be crucial to this, and the Liberal Democrats aim to establish a ten-year retention plan for NHS staff, making flexible working a right from day one, while fixing the work-visa system for healthcare workers. On social care, the Liberal Democrats plan to introduce free personal care in England, similar to the system that operates in Scotland. Alongside this pledge, the party will create a new ‘Carer’s Minimum Wage’, boosting the minimum wage for care workers by £2 per hour.

On mental health, the Liberal Democrats want to create walk-in mental health hubs for children and young people in every community, place qualified mental health professionals in every school and end out-of-area mental health placements. On public health, the party plans to regulate vaping to protect minors and ban single-use vapes, and to introduce a levy on tobacco company profits to fund healthcare and smoking cessation services. The party has also said that it would expand social prescribing, grow access to blood pressure tests in community spaces, and combat air pollution and poor air quality in public buildings with a ‘Clean Air Act’.

The Scottish National Party

The SNP manifesto argues for new fiscal rules to end cuts to public services; to reverse the £1.3 billion cut to Scotland’s capital budget, and to invest in public services, starting with the health service. Significantly, the party wants to introduce a “Keep the NHS in Public Hands Bill” at Westminster. This would include a legal guarantee for a publicly owned, publicly operated health service. It’s clear that the SNP is attempting to counter Labour’s argument in Scotland that they are the “party of the NHS”.

The SNP say that their Bill should be backed by the next UK Government and alongside this, they have called for a boost to NHS England funding of at least £16bn each year, providing an extra £1.6bn to NHS Scotland through the Barnett Consequentials. The SNP believe that independence is the means of addressing concerns over NHS funding. They say that the powers that come with independence are “…essential to building the stronger economy required to boost living standards and public services”. On pay, the SNP say that the UK Government must match Scotland’s NHS pay deals by increasing investment in NHS England staff pay and conditions of at least £6bn. This, the SNP say, would deliver around £600m for Scotland that could be invested in pay deals for hardworking NHS staff. Finally, on social care, the SNP have criticised Home Office migration policies which they say limits the ability of the care sector to recruit qualified staff.

The Green Party

The Greens say that the NHS in England will require an additional annual expenditure of £8bn in the first full year of the next Parliament, rising to £28bn in total by 2030. They also propose capital spending of at least £20bn over the next five years for hospital building and repair. The Greens say this will pay for their core priorities, including a year-on-year reduction in waiting lists; guaranteed access to an NHS dentist; guaranteed rapid access to a GP and same day access in case of urgent need and an immediate boost to the pay of NHS staff to help with retention (this will include the restoration of junior doctors’ pay).

It is clear from the Green manifesto that the party wants to focus on the prevention of ill health. In order boost prevention, the Greens want to invest in GPs and public health which they say is essential for early diagnosis and improving the quality of life. Specifically, the Green Party want to increase the allocation of funding to primary medical care, with additional annual spending reaching £1.5bn by 2030. They want to restore public health budgets to 2015/16 levels with an immediate annual increase of £1.5bn. The Greens specifically mention smoking cessation, drug and alcohol treatment and sexual health services as funding priorities. Finally, the Greens will support a change in the law in England to legalise assisted dying for people suffering from terminal disease who wish to avoid prolonged unnecessary suffering.