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Could the Spring Statement of 2018 hint towards a brighter future for NHS funding?

Philip Hammond has signalled that there may be ‘headroom’ for NHS spending later this year after public finance figures suggest that his targets are realistic and likely to be achieved.

The Chancellor gave hints towards an increase in funding towards public services later this autumn, stating that if ‘public finances continue to reflect the improvements that today’s report hints at, then…[he] would have the capacity to enable further increases in public spending’. Many commentators would cite that an increase in subsidy is long overdue and a necessity to improve a currently over-stretched and under-staffed service.

Clinical Negligence View: The effects of NHS spending and Medical Mistakes

Hammond’s admission in the Spring statement is likely to fuel demands from high-spending departments, such as the Department of Health, for backing in the months leading up to August. News and media almost daily depict a struggling NHS, facing cuts, closures and the threat of privatisation against an ever-increasing demand; from winter crises to an ageing population. Demand has exceeded income within the health service for almost a decade, and it ‘show[s] no sign of easing’ according to The King’s Fund booklet outlining the financial pressures of the NHS. Many would argue that a lack of training and available staff has been the catalyst for many avoidable medical negligence cases.

A recent case, the death of six-year-old Jack Adcock in 2015, highlighted the detrimental effects that a lack of funding can have on the public health sector. Dr Bawa-Garba, a junior doctor, had the onerous responsibility of single-handedly looking after 6 paediatric hospital wards spread across 4 floors, in an area of medicine for which she had relatively little experience. It is also important to note that no senior consultant was available to supervise Dr Bawa-Garba on the day of Jack Adcock’s death. Had the necessary support or sufficient staffing levels been provided, then perhaps the tragic incident could have been avoided. This is especially material considering that the reason behind Dr Bawa-Garba’s insufficient training was a direct result of insufficient fiscal aid, making the hospital unable to provide this necessity.

Issues aside from funding which put stress on NHS hospitals

Adequate funding for the health sector would be the first step towards preventing needless deaths by increasing the number of staff available to monitor patients and providing thorough training to every employee. However, pressure on the health sector runs deeper than NHS funding. In a recent interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, Philip Hammond brought attention to ‘the implications of an ageing society’ creating ‘continuous upward pressures’ due to the increase in patients who require treatment.

Our population currently has more than three million people aged over 80, estimated figures show that by 2050, that figure will reach eight million. Although far in the future, the Spring statement is used as a tool for reviewing the financial year and ‘giving greater certainty to families and businesses’, suggesting that NHS funding may need to be reconsidered as our circumstances evolve over time. The Chancellor’s efforts to address the challenges of an ageing population show his awareness of the elastic nature of our society, and how changing conditions require tailored needs. In this case, a heavier focus on the number of people in the United Kingdom requiring health care in relation to the resources which can be allocated makes this viable. Although Hammond made no further spending commitments for the NHS, he certainly left the topic on a positive note stating that there is a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ after eight years of spending restraint to reduce the deficit.

How much money will go towards the health sector?

Philip Hammond announced that he is on course to borrow no more than 2% of national income in 2020-2021, which leaves roughly £15.4bn headroom for higher spending on public services. However, there are a few areas which may come above the health sector on The Chancellor’s priority list. The Office for Budget Responsibility recently published the first statement of how much money Britain will have to pay Brussels each year until the completion of Brexit at £37.1bn, which may reduce the amount available for health expenditure.

Although £15.4bn is a considerable amount of money, and Hammond shows promising signs of prioritising the health sector as a public service in need of aid, it is questionable as to how much ‘headroom’ will be left for public services as a whole once Britain begins paying the annual bill to Brussels.

Belinda Hills is a Legal Assistant in the medical negligence department.