David Cameron during a visit to Frimley Park hospital. Photograph: Getty Images
Leading doctors in the NHS have accused the coalition government of a catalogue of broken promises, funding cuts and destructive legislation which has left the health service weaker than ever before.
In a letter to the Guardian, more than 140 senior doctors pass a damning judgment on the government’s stewardship of the NHS, which they say is under pressure because of unnecessary market-oriented changes.
“As medical and public health professionals our primary concern is for all patients. We invite voters to consider carefully how the NHS has fared over the last five years, and to use their vote to ensure that the NHS in England is reinstated,” they write.
The signatories to the letter include Dr Clare Gerada, former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners; Prof John Ashton, retired director of public health; epidemiologist Prof Michael Coleman; Simon Capewell, professor of public health at the University of Liverpool; Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary care at Oxford; Martin McKee, professor of European public health, and Raymond Tallis, emeritus professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester.
The letter, which the doctors have written in a private capacity, challenges the government on its NHS record and deplores the current pressures facing the health service.
Entering the last election, David Cameron assured voters that the NHS was safe in Conservative hands. The doctors, however, say the NHS “is withering away and if things carry on as they are then in future people will be denied care they once had under the NHS and have to pay more for health services. Privatisation not only threatens coordinated services but also jeopardises training of our future healthcare providers and medical research, particularly that of public health.”
Just a week ago, 100 senior business leaders wrote to the Telegraph, claiming a Labour government would “threaten jobs and deter investment” in the UK. The NHS is a potentially difficult issue for the Tories and a strong suit for Labour.
Earlier on Tuesday, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said he would meet the funding challenge thrown down by the NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens, last year. Stevens said in October that the health service faced a funding gap of £30bn by 2020, of which £22bn could be met through efficiency savings.
Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme: “We will give whatever they need. It might be more than £8bn, it might be less.”
Within hours of Hunt’s pledge, an earlier draft of the doctors’ letter was leaked to the Daily Telegraph, which claimed that Labour had orchestrated it. Julian Smith, the Tory candidate defending Skipton and Ripon, told the paper: “This Labour stitch-up is another desperate attempt to weaponise the NHS. The truth is that only today Andy Burnham said he didn’t support the NHS’s own funding plan. Under this government, we’ve got more doctors, more nurses and more patients being seen than ever before.”
But Gerada, who organised the letter, denied that the Labour party was responsible. “It has not been orchestrated by Labour, it has been put together by me and a few other medical leaders,” she told the Telegraph. “I’m not doing this from a party political point of view. My views on the health service and the Healthand Social Care Act go back and are well known. This letter was drafted by me and some others.
“I am a Labour party member now, but I’m not an activist in the Labour party. This is a view of many doctors who have serious concerns about the state of the NHS as it is now.”
A Labour spokesperson said: “It’s little surprise that doctors have written this letter – they are deeply concerned about the direction of the NHS under David Cameron and the consequences for patients of another five years of Tory government. The NHS needs Labour’s better plan for 20,000 more nurses and 8,000 more GPs, paid for with a £2.5bn a year time to care fund, and guaranteed GP appointments within 48 hours.”
The letter attacks Andrew Lansley’s NHS shakeup, which was passed by parliament in 2012 as the Health and Social Care Act. It is “already leading to the rapid and unwanted expansion of the role of commercial companies in the NHS. Lansley’s Act is denationalising healthcare because the abolition of the duty to provide a NHS throughout England, abdicates government responsibility for universal services to ad hoc bodies (such as clinical commissioning groups) and competitive markets controlled by private sector-dominated quangos,” the doctors write.
The squeeze is hitting patients, they continue: “People may be unaware that under the coalition, dozens of accident and emergency departments and maternity units have been closed or earmarked for closure or downgrading. In addition, 51 NHS walk-in centres have been closed or downgraded in this time, and more than 60 ambulance stations have shut and more than 100 general practices are at risk of closure.”
Thousands of NHS beds have closed since 2010, they say, while mental health and primary care are in disarray and public health has been “wrenched” out of the NHS and is now the responsibility of local authorities.
The way forward is clear, the doctors say. “Abolish all the damaging sections of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 that fragment care and drive the NHS towards a market-driven, ‘out-for-tender’ mentality where care is provided by the lowest bidder. Reversing this costly and inefficient market bureaucracy alone will save significant sums. Above all, the duty on the secretary of state to provide a health service throughout England must be reinstated – it still exists in Scotland and Wales.”