Patients face rationing of NHS care unless the next Government commits significantly more funding to the service, a leading health think-tank has told Sky News.
The King’s Fund says that after the deepest funding squeeze in health service history the NHS is “approaching a crisis” that will see patients suffer.
The warning comes as new research reveals 50% of NHS areas will have to delay or cancel spending to meet financial targets, and four in 10 are already planning to reduce the amount of treatment they carry out, including elective procedures such as hip replacements.
Meanwhile, health spokesmen for all three main parties have set out their priorities in a Sky News special report on the state of the NHS, the public service that voters consistently say they value above all others.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt defended the government’s record but said a promise of more funding depended on Britain achieving a positive Brexit deal.
Chris Ham, chief executive of the King’s Fund, told Sky News: “The NHS is approaching a crisis. Hospitals have been under huge pressure this winter, social care is already in crisis because of rising demand and constrained resources, and increasingly we are seeing rationing of health care.
“If there is no more money after the election we will see more rationing, patients will suffer, staff will feel under even greater pressure and quality of care will undoubtedly be affected.”
His bleak assessment was backed up by a new survey of finance directors at Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), the local bodies that commission healthcare from hospitals, GPs and other providers.
It found 40% of CCGs are reviewing or reducing the level of treatment they commission after NHS England effectively downgraded the target for elective treatment. Earlier this year NHS England conceded that waiting lists for such treatments are likely to grow as the service prioritises A&E, cancer, stroke and mental health services.
The NHS has just endured its worst-ever winter performance which saw 2.5m people wait for more than four hours in A&E, and a 25% increase in “bed blocking” – patients clinically ready to be discharged but delayed in hospital because they did not have care in place at home.
The main parties have focused on funding pledges but the social care needs of an ageing population, source of much of the pressure on the NHS, has become a pressing issue since Theresa May executed a manifesto u-turn.
Under current government spending plans the health service has experienced the biggest funding squeeze in its history, with spending due to rise by just 0.3% next year.
All three parties are promising more money for the NHS. According to analysis by the Nuffield Trust however all fall short of demand rising at 3%-4% a year, and all would see NHS funding fall as a proportion of GDP.
Mr Hunt, who has been health secretary for almost five years, told Sky News that the Conservative’s manifesto promise of at least £8bn a year more by the end of the next Parliament matches what Labour has promised.
Speaking at a hustings in his South West Surrey constituency, he said: “With an ageing population, inevitably there are going to be funding pressures on health systems across the world.
“The question on voters’ minds is which party can they trust to actually deliver that extra funding?
“Theresa May who will keep the economy safe in the Brexit deal, or Jeremy Corbyn who frankly can’t even get his own party to agree about Brexit. We Conservatives are committed to the NHS and to the social care deal, and will deliver the strong economy that will fund it.”
Labour are promising £37bn for health and social care over the course of the next Parliament, slightly more than the Conservative’s according to analysis by the Nuffield Trust.
Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the funding squeeze had put the NHS “on the brink”, and that he would halt all hospital closures currently proposed under a restructuring programme.
“The NHS is being asked to do more and more for less and less and we are the only party in this election promising substantial investment,” he said.
“We are not opposed to changing services, the NHS has not stayed the same for all of its 70 years. But the way these current changes have been railroaded through is that local people have not been consulted, and clinicians and hospital consultants have been asked to work on financial plans that are not realistic. We will halt it and ask local people.”
“We are saying within a month of the election let us set up an NHS and care convention, be honest with the public, be honest with people about the pressures we are facing, how they are growing and the costs involved in meeting people’s needs.
Norman Lamb was a health minister in the Coalition government, and is spearheading Liberal Democrat plans to unify health and social care budgets, with a promise of an additional £30bn funded by adding a penny on income tax.
He believes tackling the looming social care crisis is a priority and has called for a cross-party approach.
“The politicians are letting people down. We are the sixth largest economy in the world. We ought to be capable of building and funding a health and social care system that meets people’s needs. But we are failing them.”