In mid-September, the UK Government promised an additional £200 million in funding to boost NHS resilience ahead of winter.
This was only the most recent announcement of Government largesse towards the health service over this parliamentary term:
- After the pandemic, then Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced a record £36 billion investment into the NHS and social care systems in September 2021.
- When many Departments suffered funding cuts in Jeremy Hunt’s Budget in October a year later, spending on the health service remained ring-fenced, with a further £6 billion being made available to the service over the next two years.
- And in June, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a 15-year NHS reform which included an extra £2.4 billion for the health service and changes to education and training requirements for medical professionals in a bid to train an extra 60,000 doctors.
But with the NHS roiled by on-going strike action by consultants and junior doctors, among others, and with a record number of over 7.6 million people now on waiting lists in England, it is unlikely that the latest fresh investment in the NHS will be enough to paper over the cracks in the service and, in turn, improve the public’s negative view of the Government’s management of it.
Indeed, we at Redfield and Wilton Strategies find that the Government has held a negative net approval rating for its handling of the NHS in every poll since August 2021. Approval has only broken 30% once since May 2022.
59% of voters now say they disapprove of the Government’s performance on the NHS, with only 19% saying they approve. Notably, a plurality (44%) of those who voted Conservative in 2019 also disapprove of the Government’s performance in this area, against just 30% who approve.
The Conservatives also lag far behind Labour in terms of public trust to manage the NHS.
40% of voters currently cite Labour as the party they trust the most to support the NHS, against only 20% who most trust the Conservatives. The Conservatives have never been more trusted than Labour since we started tracking this question in February 2021, when the Conservatives were surging in voting intention polling on the back of a well-executed vaccine rollout.
Despite the many financial commitments the Conservatives have made to the NHS since the 2019 General Election, an overwhelming majority of Britons do not believe the Conservatives have fulfilled the promises they made about the NHS at that election.
In a recent poll, 64% said they do not believe the Conservative Party has fulfilled its promises from 2019 to build new and upgrade old hospitals, while hiring more doctors and nurses. Among those who voted Conservative in that election, 59% do not believe the party has delivered on its promises towards the health service.
In January, in an attempt to reset his Government’s policy agenda, Rishi Sunak named cutting waiting lists as one of his five key priorities for 2023. In so doing, he correctly identified one of the major concerns of voters, 65% of whom recently said that backlogs in the NHS mattered a significant or fair amount to them personally.
However, with a little over three months of the year left to meet his pledge, a majority of Britons (56%) now say that Sunak and his Government has made no progress at all towards achieving its priority of cutting NHS waiting lists. A further 19% say the Government has made only a little progress towards achieving this aim.
The number of Britons who say no progress at all has been made on cutting waiting lists has in fact risen since June, when 47% believed the Government had made no progress at all towards solving the issue.
At the root of the Government’s struggles on the NHS is the widespread impression amongst the public that the Government has not treated the problems in the health service with the required urgency.
Only 35% of respondents think that the Government has taken the NHS backlogs either extremely or fairly seriously, against 40% (including 24% of 2019 Conservative voters) who think the Government has taken the backlogs not at all seriously.
By way of comparison, more than two thirds of respondents say that the government has taken the war in Ukraine (73%) and the coronavirus pandemic (66%) extremely or fairly seriously.
As such, voters are fatalistic about the Government’s ability to reduce waiting lists by the end of the year. A majority of 66%, including 58% of 2019 Conservative voters, believe the Government will not achieve its goal of cutting waiting lists, against only 21% who think that it will.
The public is slightly more pessimistic about the Government’s chances of cutting waiting lists now than they were in June, when 61% said it would not achieve that goal.
More to the point, an overwhelming majority of Britons believe that patients in the NHS could be getting better care (69%), and an even higher 72% think that most patients at the NHS are not getting the care they need as soon as possible.
In addition, 67% say that the Government is significantly or fairly to blame for the fact that, according to figures released in April, one in ten patients appearing at A&E wards in English hospitals were waiting more than 12 hours to be admitted, transferred, or discharged. 56% also hold NHS senior managers significantly or fairly to blame for this situation.
If past evidence is anything to go by, the Government will receive little credit from the electorate if all it does is announce further investments of money into the NHS. If investment were the only barometer of success, the NHS would be in rude health at the moment.
At the end of the day, improving the public’s perception of the Government’s management of the NHS can only come from improvements in the actual lived experience of Britons with the day-to-day service the NHS provides (i.e., the quality and timeliness of care), not through much-publicised announcements of extra cash.