Tamsin Richmond-Watson, APCO: Tories shape plans for NHS

Ahead of EU and UK polls, the Conservative Party is quietly seeking support for its health policies.

Tamsin Richmond-Watson, APCO: Tories shape plans for NHS

The European elections in June have added significance for public affairs practitioners in healthcare. At EU level, the Lisbon Treaty hold-up, the associated delay in the appointment of a new European Commission, and wrangles over the formation of new political groups in Parliament all point to legislative inertia. This will slow down important new EU legislation about information to patients, medicines safety and counterfeit drugs, as well as responses to the publication of the inquiry into the pharmaceutical industry.

At UK level, however, although a low turnout in both local and European elections and the proportional voting system for Europe might somewhat mask the extent of Labour’s unpopularity, the focus for public affairs is likely to pivot. Rather than seeking to influence government thinking, healthcare clients will increasingly seek counsel about what an incoming Conservative administration might mean for their businesses and which key players and advisers they should be courting.

David Cameron may have delivered only one speech on the subject in the past nine months, but the Conservatives have quietly been seeking professional buy-in for their plans. There are signs the public is prepared to trust the Tories again with the NHS. Political imperatives and Cameron’s personal reliance on the service have blunted the radicalism of old. But because the nuances between the parties on health are now quite subtle, there is a greater need for familiarity with the finer detail.

Last autumn, the Conservatives pledged to maintain Labour’s spending plans in four areas: health, education, international development and defence. Now, it is just two: health and international development – and the pressure to find savings increases almost daily. Labour has already promised to find £4bn in economies of its own, easing the pressure on the Tories, but there are signs PCTs have still not fully absorbed the new politics of austerity. The Conservative Party may have pledged real-term health spending growth, but percentages are likely to be miniscule. The days of four per cent growth are over, whoever wins next year.

For the Tories, treading a fine line between upheaval and reform, and between the interests of professionals and patients, there is a particular sensitivity to the charge they are planning cuts.

Right-wing hobby horses such as GP visit charges are likely to be resisted in favour of pay restraint and phasing out strategic health authorities. The independent NHS board was not included in shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley’s ten-point plan outlined at the Tory spring forum, suggesting thinking in this area is ongoing.

Other aspects of Conservative policy are beginning to crystallise. There appears to be wholehearted support for patient empowerment and a greater focus on outcomes. Changes to the dental contract, the GP contract and the Quality and Outcomes Framework are all expected. And although the report of the Conservatives’ IT review commission is still pending, IT clients and those with an interest in public health will need help navigating a reformed environment. Tory promises of greater funding for science research, 45,000 extra single hospital rooms and an end to same-sex wards will only intensify the search for savings elsewhere.

Will that mean tighter drug budgets? NICE is here to stay, but the Tories are aware of the public pressure to make clinically effective treatments available faster. Value-based pricing and risksharing agreements will have major implications for the industry. Opportunities to shape policies ahead of the general election are narrowing. We are heading into a busy period in health.

Views in Brief

You’re in charge of the NHS for the day. What one change would you make?
Ask the bureaucrats to stay at home, and tell everyone else that, for one day,
no-one at the centre will be checking their targets. And then sit back and
watch them exceed the targets.

What did you learn from the most challenging healthcare comms task in
which you have been involved?

It doesn’t matter how effective or creative your campaign is, or what
advocates or champions you have, if you don’t have the evidence to back up
your argument.

Tamsin Richmond-Watson is a director at APCO Worldwide

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