General election, what does it mean for the NHS: Focus on waiting times, timely diagnosis and treatment, innovation, adoption, modernising, a new ‘Fit for the Future’ fund…

With the results of the 2024 general election handing Labour a majority and placing Keir Starmer as Prime Minister, let’s take a look at what this might mean for the NHS.

We previously reported on the highlights of Labour’s manifesto when it came to the national health service, along with looking into the manifestos of other main political parties. For Labour, cutting NHS waiting times was key, along with shifting away from “late diagnosis and treatment” and modernising the NHS with a new ‘Fit for the Future’ fund.

Looking in more detail, Labour’s manifesto sets out an ambition to “rebuild our country”, including a vision of the NHS as “once again at the cutting edge of healthcare”. Acknowledging the challenges facing the NHS, including pandemic stresses and winter pressures, the manifesto states that Labour’s ambition “goes beyond returning the NHS to what it was. Labour’s mission is to build an NHS fit for the future. Investment alone won’t be enough to tackle the problems facing the NHS; it must go hand in hand with fundamental reform.”

This brings with it a focus on prevention rather than the view of the NHS as a “sickness service”, with Labour emphasising a need to also focus on the management of chronic, long-term conditions along with mental health, cancer, cardiovascular disease and suicide.

The manifesto pledges to “harness the power of technologies like AI to transform the speed and accuracy of diagnostic services” as part of efforts to building a new NHS, and states that a system “reliant on pagers and fax machines is not fit for this decade let alone the next”. The new ‘Fit for the Future’ fund will see investment for the doubling of CT and MRI scanners in the health service to support the NHS in diagnosing diseases more quickly, with Labour commenting that “state of the art scanners with embedded AI are faster and more effective at finding small tumours, saving lives”.

The party points to the “revolution taking place in data and life sciences” and says that it “has the potential to transform our nation’s healthcare”, suggesting that COVID demonstrated how a “strong mission-driven industrial strategy” underpinned by collaboration between government, industry and academia was capable of “turning the tide on a pandemic”. This is the approach Labour pledges to take; as part of the party’s life sciences plan, the manifesto shares intention to develop an NHS innovation and adoption strategy in England which will include a plan for procurement. This aims to provide a clearer route to introduce products into the NHS along with “reformed incentive structures” designed to drive innovation and quicker regulatory approval for new technologies and medicines.

The manifesto draws attention to the NHS App as part of plans to maximise the UK’s potential with clinical trials, with focus to be placed on making the process of recruitment and participation “more efficient and accessible” and people encouraged to take part in trials via the app. Labour also states that it will “transform” the app by putting more information in patients’ hands, including performance information on local services, notifications of vaccinations and health checks, and medical guidelines for treatments.

On waiting lists, Labour states that the immediate priority on health will be to “get a grip on the record waiting list” and return to meeting NHS performance standards, where patients can expect to wait for no longer than 18 weeks from referral for consultant-led treatment of non-urgent health conditions. The first step in this plan will be the delivery of an additional two million NHS operations, scans and appointments each year, translating to 4,000 new appointments per week. Labour plans to achieve this by incentivising staff to carry out additional appointments out-of-hours, and by pooling resources across neighbouring hospitals to introduce shared waiting lists. A plan to utilise spare capacity in the independent sector to ensure quicker diagnosis and treatment is also highlighted.

The manifesto includes a section on receiving healthcare closer to home, with Labour stating intention to “reform” the primary care system by delivering a “modern appointment booking system to end the 8am scramble”. There are also plans to reduce pressure on GP surgeries by improving access to services and treatments via new routes, such as a community pharmacist prescribing service, expanded self-referrals, and the ability for other professionals such as opticians to make direct referrals to specialist services or tests.

Regarding social care, Labour intends to undertake a programme of reform to create a national care service which will see services locally delivered with a principle of “home first” that places emphasis on independent living for as long as possible.

Building on commitments to support mental health, the manifesto also shares plans to develop the Online Safety Act, “bringing forward provisions as quickly as possible, and explore further measures to keep everyone safe online, particularly when using social media.” Additionally, Labour plans to provide coroners with more powers to access information held by technology companies when a child has passed away.

Looking next to patient safety, Labour’s manifesto comments in particular on child health services and shares plans to digitise the Red Book record of children’s health to improve support for new families.

Acknowledging that many NHS estates are in a “state of disrepair”, Labour also commits to delivering the New Hospitals Programme.

Click here to read Labour’s manifesto in full.