Today’s NHS 10-year plan is the health service’s response to the £20.5 billion funding boost announced by ministers last year. The Prime Minister is unveiling further details of the plan this morning, with NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens doing his own broadcast tour to sell it. He argues that the plan ‘tackles head-on the pressures our staff face’ and also ‘sets a practical, costed, phased route map for the NHS’s priorities for care quality and outcomes improvement for the decade ahead’.
The plan is a good metaphor for the May government, too: its announcement was delayed from its original launch date of late autumn, there is a £1 billion ‘black hole’ in funding, and health chiefs have not been able to match some of the government’s rhetoric on salient issues such as mental health. One of its key priorities is cancer treatment, with better access to screening for bowel and lung cancer, for instance, and an aim to have 75 per cent of the commonest cancers diagnosed at either stage one or two by 2028 – currently only 52 per cent of diagnoses are at these early, much more treatable stages.
There’s also ‘the largest expansion of mental health services in a generation’, with an extra £2.3 billion of funding going into mental health care by 2023-24. This could help 350,000 more children and young people, and 380,000 more adults. This is obviously helpful, but unless the details of the plan also include a commitment to funding enough acute psychiatric beds, therapies which are not just limited to those included in the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies targets (as these apply largely to anxiety and depression rather than those illnesses considered more severe, such as bipolar and schizophrenia), crisis care that isn’t just a 24-hour helping, and transitions from inpatient units to the outside world that aren’t quite so abrupt, then mental health is going to need a great many more expansions before the care offered to the majority of patients is anywhere near acceptable.
Oh, and it won’t make much sense without a long-term plan for social care, which is, like much of Theresa May’s domestic policy, still forthcoming. The one saving grace for the NHS is that it is always politically salient enough for it not to drop off politicians’ radars merely with the publication of a plan. The prospects for social care, and other domestic policies that May has named a priority but which are still stuck in a stalemate, are rather less bright.