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Jeremy Hunt's NHS Boost Receives A Cautious Welcome, But Strikes Still Loom

Senior NHS bosses welcomed the money promised in today's autumn statement, but doctors say money is 'effective cut to health spending (Alamy)

4 min read

An increase to NHS budgets announced in Jeremy Hunt's Autumn Statement has received a cautious welcome from senior NHS staff, but concerns over severe winter pressures and the possibility of strikes still remain.

Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of the NHS, offered a reserved praise for the £3.3bn promised for each of the next two years, which she said would be “sufficient” to cover “key priorities”.

But doctors have dismissed the pledge as “an effective cut to health spending” as inflation and demand on the service remain high. 

The NHS and schools were both promised billions in the Chancellor’s fiscal announcement, while other departments are waiting to see if they will have to contend with budget cuts in the coming weeks and months. 

Hunt said the money would help shore up NHS budgets while a new independent review is undertaken to assess the number of doctors and nurses who were expected to be needed in the next 5, 10 and 15 years.

Pritchard said today that she “welcome[s] the Chancellor’s decision to prioritise the NHS with funding to address rising cost pressures and help staff deliver the best possible care for patients”. 

“While I am under no illusions that NHS staff face very testing times ahead, particularly over winter, this settlement should provide sufficient funding for the NHS to fulfil its key priorities,” she added. 

“As ever, we will act with determination to ensure every penny of investment delivers for patients.” 

The NHS is entering the coldest months under historic pressure, with record waiting lists for elective surgery, long waits in A&E departments and staffing shortages, leading staff to call for more support from Whitehall. Earlier in the autumn, it had been reported that the NHS was seeking £7bn to fill the holes in its budgets, with more than seven million people now on the waiting lists in England for treatments.

An NHS source suggested that the money would go some way to plugging the gaps in the service and suggested that the news was "more positive" than negative. While The British Medical Association described the extra funding as “much needed” they suggested that patients will “suffer further” if more is not done, setting the tone among staffing groups. 

"With inflation now topping 11 per cent and set to remain high, it doesn’t take an economist to see this is an effective cut to health spending,” Dr Emma Runswick, BMA council deputy chair said. 

“Demand and pressures in our hospitals, GP practices and across the system have never been greater. This failure to match spending with the cost of providing care means services will inevitably be impacted and patients will suffer further.”

Dr Runswick also pointed to the fact that “many are being left with no choice but to consider industrial action”, as the threats of strike action across the health service over the winter looms. 

“Staff have had enough,” she said. 

“Real-terms pay is continuing to fall, made worse by sky-high inflation.” 

Junior doctors are due to be balloted in the New Year, and nurses could strike as soon as next month, after they failed to reach an agreement with government. 

After announcing earlier this month that staff had agreed to strike action, the chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, Pat Cullen said today that the government has five days to come forward with a deal or there will be December strikes. 

Writing to the Health Secretary Steve Barclay earlier, Cullen said: “I waited for today’s Autumn Statement by the Chancellor before concluding that the government remains unprepared to give my members the support they need at work and at home. 

“It is with regret that I write to say that unless our next meeting has the status of formal pay negotiations, beginning within the next five days, we will be announcing the dates and locations of our December strike action.”

While the pressures remain on the government to support the NHS, having directly increased  spending, Hunt appeared to have defused the possibility of an immediate major attack on the topic from Labour.

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves did make note of NHS pressures in her Commons response to Hunt, but she only made brief reference to waiting lists and the broader strain the health service is under. 

She told the Commons: "Never before have people paid so much in tax, and got so little in return. At the weekend the Chancellor admitted the NHS was already on the brink of collapse.  

"With 7 million people on NHS waiting lists, how much longer will that list get?"

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