The Chancellor’s 2020 Budget was good news for the NHS. However, the success may yet be bittersweet, explains Malcolm Lowe-Lauri, our Head of Health.
The recent budget announcement saw the government come through on long-standing promises. This includes £6 billion of additional funding and a re-commitment to the multi-billion-pound renewal of 40 NHS hospitals.
To help deal with the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak the chancellor set aside £5 billion and promised the NHS whatever it needed to answer the crisis. This is the bittersweet part.
Every public service dreams of a blank cheque, but in this case, the cash might not be enough. People are the main currency of the health service, and with predictions that 20% of the UK workforce could be out of action, no amount of money will overcome an NHS staffing shortage.
The challenge the 2020 budget brings to the NHS
The challenge now is to use the money wisely; not only to cope with the crisis, but for the NHS to make itself fit for the future. Now is the time to move the service away from bricks and mortar, getting patients and clinicians used to new technology, which could save time and money once the crisis has passed.
Video-call consultations remove the risk of infected patients spreading viruses to clinicians and other patients, but have been shown to be effective wherever physical contact is not required for diagnosis. Where it is, the video calls can act as a triage to ensure only urgent cases need be dealt with in person. This also saves clinicians time and money on commuting and travel, which will allow them to deal with more patients in a shorter period of time.
Likewise, technology could offer consultants more options for managing their workload while they’re on the go. Apps to manage their appointments and referrals, or even to give them the option of video-consulting from their phone or tablet, could streamline their process.
Conversely, improving the NHS’ online presence could allow patients to take greater control of their own care, booking appointments and referrals online themselves, rather than clogging up GP surgery phonelines and coming in for unnecessary appointments. This will spare the load on admin support teams, and again, keep infectious patients away from public buildings.
Prioritising investment in technology like this could help ease the load of the coronavirus crisis, but also get the NHS ready to take greater advantage of this tech once the situation has resolved. After they’ve used it once during the crisis, it will be easier to persuade patients to take advantage of the options again, and the infrastructure will already be in place.
Of course, the question remains as to whether it’s appropriate for coronavirus relief funding to cover investment in the future. However, with 20% of the workforce out sick, elective treatments will be cancelled and waiting lists may get out of control. Steps must be taken to recover from this backlog, which could be said to be the purpose of the new funding.
The 2020 budget’s boost for R&D
In other news, the government has recognised that research and development will be essential once we sever our ties with the European Union. As such, up to £22 billion pa has been set aside for R&D, with a long-term target of 2.4% of GDP.
Once Brexit is completed, the NHS will need to ensure it can attract and retain talented clinicians and researchers. The focus on R&D will help to bring the health service in-line with academia and industry.
Relief for overtime workers, but too late?
Elsewhere in the budget, the controversial taper mechanism for the NHS pensions annual allowance will only kick in at £200,000 pa from now on. This is a positive step and will ease the resistance NHS Trusts are finding in getting their staff to work beyond their contracted hours.
Ironically, however, the move comes exactly when the NHS is facing mass absence from the coronavirus. Since this will mean greater reliance on healthy clinicians to work extra hours, the change may not be enough in the exact year that the change is most needed.
Crisis or opportunity?
Of course, what the budget has really highlighted is just how essential a properly funded health service is, specifically for economic growth. The government clearly accepts the urgency of restoring greater funding to the health service and has acted appropriately, which is good news.
Now it is up to the NHS to take advantage of the funding provided and prepare itself for the future. The 2020 budget is a golden opportunity for the NHS to prove its worth.
To discuss further how the NHS can invest in the future, contact Malcolm Lowe-Lauri.