There is no shortage of issues requiring Liz Truss’s urgent attention when she takes up post in Number 10 tomorrow afternoon. The cost-of-living crisis, ongoing war in Ukraine and “an NHS in its worst state in living memory”, will all be jostling for position in the new Prime Minister’s first red box.
With the next General Election less than two years away, Truss now faces the unenviable task of putting her stamp on British politics in the most challenging domestic political environment since the financial crisis of 2008.
Having preached to a Conservative choir for the last six weeks, she must now turn her attention to the electorate at large and convince those who voted Conservative in 2019, not only of how she will let them keep hold of their money through tax cuts, but how and where she will spend it. Looking at the current state of the NHS, she might want to look there before she looks anywhere else.
The new Prime Minister takes up post at a time when NHS staff vacancies currently sit 132,139 full time equivalent roles, with 1 in 10 posts in trusts in England currently sitting vacant. The most recent elective backlog figures see 6.73 million people waiting for consultant-led elective care, 300,000 of whom have been waiting for more than a year and 29,000 people a month waiting at least 12 hours for treatment in A&E.
The Prime Minister also faces the imminent prospect of a cascade of extended strikes over Autumn from both doctors and nurses as over 100,000 Unite NHS workers are currently voting on whether to strike over a below inflation 4% pay rise for NHS staff. The union has urged NHS staff to support the strike, a call which has also been supported by the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association calling industrial action “inevitable.”
Given that strikes have been a regular fixture in British news over the past several months, Truss’s approach to these wage demands will go a long way to set the tone of her premiership. National strike action by NHS staff would effectively double the number of NHS vacancies and risks halting any progress in elective treatment whilst bringing emergency services, already on the brink, to their knees.
Liz Truss takes up office in the heart of a perfect storm for the NHS, faced with spiraling waiting times, massive vacancy lists and imminent widespread strikes. With this in mind, can she really afford not to compromise on NHS pay demands?
Meanwhile, Labour will be looking for any opportunity they can to hit the Government on its record on the NHS ahead of the next election, and the Liberal Democrats will be looking to make inroads in Tory heartlands with their messaging on ambulance delays.
Although the cost of living and the war in Ukraine will take all the immediate headlines in the coming weeks, the NHS is perfectly set up to be a key battleground for all parties in the race to Number 10 at the next general election. The NHS will largely define how Liz Truss is remembered as Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
By Matthew Spencer