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Spring budget will ‘scarcely touch the sides’, say NHS leaders

Spring budget will ‘scarcely touch the sides’, say NHS leaders
By Beth Gault
7 March 2024

The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s spring budget funding boost for the NHS will ‘scarcely touch the sides’, according to some NHS leaders.

In the budget, announced yesterday (6 March), Mr Hunt announced the NHS would be getting a £2.5bn funding boost in 2024/25.

He also pledged to invest an additional £3.4bn in technology over the next parliament to replace outdated NHS IT systems and improve patient care, as part of a wider strategy to increase public sector productivity.

In his speech to parliament, the Chancellor said: ‘Resources matter, of course, which is why despite all the economic shocks we have faced, overall spending on public services has gone up since 2010, in the case of the NHS by more than a third in real terms.

‘But although spending has continued to rise every year, public sector productivity still remains below pre-pandemic levels by nearly 6%. This demonstrates that the way to improve public services is not always more money or more people, we also need to run them more efficiently.’

He claimed that the investment in digital transformation would significantly reduce the 13 million hours lost by doctors every year because of old IT, and that the investment would deliver £35bn in ‘productivity savings’ over the next parliament.

However, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said that while the technology investment has ‘potential’ to improve patient care and productivity, the £2.5bn is not enough.

He said: ‘The promised £2.5bn boost for NHS budgets next year will scarcely touch the sides as the service faces the triple threat of ongoing industrial action, significant waiting lists and uncertainty over staff pay. This also raises eyebrows over how achievable the new productivity target may end up being without greater investment. Rather than improve the situation, this may just about stop things from worsening.

‘Given the Chancellor’s health background, NHS leaders had hoped to see more recognition for the situation they are up against with full funding of the workforce plan and greater investment in primary and community care so that they can carry out the important prevention work that will mean so much to the NHS in years to come.’

The King’s Fund chief executive, Sarah Woolnough, said that the NHS had ‘fared better’ than other public services. She said the technology investment was ‘a welcome first step to increasing efficiency’ but that it would take time to make a difference.

‘The investment will kick-in next year, and it will then take time for the funding to translate into real improvements for patients as staff need time to embed new technology and make changes to how services are delivered,’ said Ms Woolnough.

‘Ministers will also need to resist the urge to give with one hand and later take away with the other – raiding NHS capital and technology budgets to cover day to day running costs has become an unfortunate trend in recent years.’

Meanwhile, NHS Providers chief executive, Sir Julian Hartley, said the budget would be a ‘temporary respite’.

However, NHS England’s chief executive Amanda Pritchard praised the Government’s backing of the NHS, saying the £2.5bn extra funding ‘ensures we have the support we need to make continued progress on our key priorities for patients’.

She added: ‘The significant £3.4bn investment in capital to fund new technology means the NHS can now commit to deliver 2% annual productivity growth in the final two years of the next Parliament, which will unlock tens of billions of savings.’

The Chancellor also cut employee national insurance in the budget, dropping it from 10% to 8% from April. This follows a previous 2% drop in last year’s autumn statement, from 12% to 10%.

At the time, experts criticised the statement for a lack of recognition for the challenges the NHS was facing and the funding required to tackle them.

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