How do Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak plan to tackle the NHS crisis?

Healthcare got only ‘incidental mention’ during first Tory leadership debate despite record waiting lists

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss during the BBC debate
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss at BBC leadership debate at Victoria Hall in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent
(Image credit: Jacob King-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss outlined their plans for everything from national security to tax cuts during their first Tory leadership debate, but one key issue was barely mentioned.

The NHS crisis has been dominating headlines for months, as the numbers of patients on waiting lists for medical treatment hit record highs. Yet while “precious minutes were devoted to rows about sharp suits and cheap earrings”, the two would-be Conservative leaders largely ignored healthcare during last night’s hour-long clash, said Politico’s London Playbook – an omission that “did not go unnoticed”.

‘Lack of discussion’

Latest analysis of NHS England data by the British Medical Association found that more than 6.6m people were waiting for treatment in May. A total of 331,623 had been waiting for more than a year – 13 times more than in May 2020.

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The data also reveals an increase in the number of people seeking private healthcare, fuelling fears that a “two-tier” healthcare system is emerging, with the wealthy given more chances to skip the queues.

But despite growing calls for action, there was only an “incidental mention of the NHS” during Monday’s Tory leadership debate, said Yahoo News.

Accusing Truss of seeking to offload the Covid debt burden onto future generations, Sunak told his rival that the government “took a decision to protect the economy and support the NHS through Covid”.

The former chancellor continued: “The question is, should we pay that bill ourselves? Or, do we put it on the county’s credit card and pass the tab to our children?”

The two leadership hopefuls then moved on to clash horns over debt repayments, interest rates and Brexit.

‘Barely a mention’

Opposition politicians were quick to express their disbelief at how little attention was devoted to the NHS during the opening debate, which was staged in front of an audience in Stoke-on-Trent and aired live on BBC One.

We’re facing the “biggest crisis in the NHS’s history” with “6.6 million people waiting” for treatment and “100,000 staff short”, Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting wrote on Twitter. “Heart attack and stroke victims waiting an hour on average for an ambulance. Barely a mention from Sunak and Truss. Not serious.”

“Nothing on NHS waiting times, soaring bills or travel chaos,” tweeted Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey. “Our country deserves so much better than two Conservative cabinet ministers that propped up Boris Johnson’s failing government.”

‘Vague’ proposals

While the NHS crisis barely got a mention during Monday’s leadership clash, Sunak used his first major speech since reaching the final stage of the race to outline some plans to tackle waiting lists.

Addressing a crowd on Saturday in Grantham, the Lincolnshire home town of Margaret Thatcher, the ex-chancellor pledged to create a so-called “vaccines style” taskforce dedicated to tackling NHS backlogs if he becomes the UK’s next prime minister.

He also outlined plans to increase the number of diagnostic hubs from 160 to 200 and to introduce a new target “to eliminate all one-year waits by September 2024, six months earlier than currently planned”.

Sunak “at least tried to address the issue”, said the i news site’s chief political commentator Paul Waugh, but his proposals have been “a mix of the underwhelming and the vague”. Although “digitisation and other reforms can help speed things up, tougher targets will only be met with more money and staff”.

Waugh was even more scathing about Truss, whose “only major health policy announcement seems to be” that she would scrap the health and social care levy introduced earlier this year by Sunak and then health secretary Sajid Javid to tackle Covid backlogs and reform routine services.

Foreign Secretary Truss has also proposed reinstating “the existing manifesto commitment to building 40 ‘new’ hospitals” and expanding GP services – but she has “decided to ‘stop short of announcing long-term reform of the NHS until she has got her feet under the desk’”, Waugh added.

Key issue for voters

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee was bemused by how little was said “about the NHS gasping on a life-support machine” during the leadership debate, “even though it ranks high in voters’ concerns”.

A snap Opinum poll of more than 500 Tory party members earlier this month found that the NHS was one of the topics that respondents felt most “passionate” about, along with the cost-of-living crisis, refugees and immigration, and growing the UK economy, The Sunday Times reported.

Given those priorities, “one would expect the two candidates to be the next Tory leader and prime minister to be coming up with detailed solutions”, said Waugh on the i news site. But “so far, there’s been a marked lack of substance”.

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