The Liberal Democrats have joined the bidding war over the NHS by promising to invest an extra £35bn into health and social care over the next five years.
The party plans to fund this through its signature policy of adding a penny to the basic rate of income tax, which it says would raise £7bn. This would see NHS England’s budget grow to £142.8bn by 2023-24.
The annual budget figure comes between the Tories’ £140.3bn and Labour’s £143.5bn pledges. That is because only 38% or £12.2bn of the £35bn extra would go to the NHS. The single largest amount – £12.9bn – would go towards shoring up social care services, which have been cut back since Whitehall austerity began in 2010-11.
The Lib Dems would put another £3.9bn of the £35bn into measures to tackle NHS understaffing, which service chiefs say is its biggest problem. That would pay for the return of bursaries for student nurses who plan to go into areas of care, such as mental health and learning disabilities, which are struggling with particularly acute shortages of nurses.
Applications for nursing courses have fallen by 30% and undergraduate entrants by 9% since the then chancellor scrapped bursaries in 2016.
The other £3.2bn would boost public health which, like social care, has repeatedly experienced year-on-year budget cuts in recent years.
The party is also pledging to give the NHS an additional £10bn in capital funding, to spend on projects, such as repairing archaic or unsafe buildings, build new facilities and buy new scanners and other equipment. That money, spread over the five years of the next parliament, would be over and above England’s existing £5bn-a-year budget for such purposes. The estimated cost of repairs across the NHS has spiralled to £6.5bn.
NHS chiefs have been calling for a major injection of capital funding as many hospitals become increasingly decrepit, linked to ministers diverting £4.2bn from capital budgets in recent years to give the NHS more for its day-to-day running costs.
“The NHS is struggling to cope with severe staff shortages, chronic underfunding and crumbling hospital buildings,” said Luciana Berger, the Lib Dem spokesperson for health, social care and wellbeing. “We are the only party with a credible plan to protect the NHS, by tackling the staffing crisis, investing in mental health services and making our NHS buildings fit for the 21st century”.
Berger said cancelling Brexit would help relieve the service, tackle its growing lack of doctors, nurses and other health professionals.
Helen Buckingham, the director of strategy at the Nuffield Trust heath thinktank, said: “This extra money is welcome for the NHS and would mean a more decisive break with the years of austerity. The measures for student nurses should allow us to start rolling back spiralling vacancies by attracting new staff.
“It’s good to see public health and social care, which have been cut back with disastrous consequences, being singled out for more funding.”
Buckingham voiced unease about the Lib Dems’ reliance on putting a penny on income tax to raise all of the £35bn. “That raises the worry of whether NHS and social care funds fall if economic trouble knocks tax yields down,” she said.