Health Policy October 3, 2019
Labour attempts to wade through Brexit storm with radical health proposals

By News Feature - Accountable Care Journal

The Labour Party have sought to overcome turbulence over its divisive Brexit party by setting out radical health proposals at its 2019 conference, writes David Duffy, Deputy Editor of Accountable Care Journal.

Labour’s approach to negotiating Britain’s future relationship with the European Union (EU) was, unsurprisingly, the main talking point at this year’s conference and subsequently dominated the headlines. Yet policy announcements did manage to gain attention too, particularly in the realms of education and health, where Labour unveiled transformative plans for health and social care.

Taking on big pharma 

Jeremy Corbyn used his conference speech to announce a bold and controversial plan that, should Labour come to power, would set the party on a collision course with pharmaceutical and life sciences companies.

The “Medicines for the Many” programme would force down drug prices by setting up a “publicly owned generic drugs manufacture” from which the NHS would be supplied medicines at lower rates. Essentially, this would end the ability of pharmaceutical companies to secure exclusive research details to drugs they are currently working on, a policy that currently prevents other companies from replicating their products.

“We will redesign the system to serve public health, not private wealth, using compulsory licensing to secure generic versions of patented medicines,” the Labour leader told the conference.

It is of little surprise that pharma companies have strongly opposed the proposal. “It would completely undermine the system for developing new medicines and discourage research in a country that wants to be a leader in innovation,” said the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Labour has said the proposal is similar to schemes seen in the Netherlands, where Dutch pharmacies have increasingly bypassed drug company products and have instead made medicines themselves.

The ramifications for this would undoubtably be enormous. It poses huge questions over whether companies should have exclusive rights to drugs after carrying out substantial research and development to produce the drugs in the first place. Or does the Government have the right to override this, considering lifesaving medicines are deemed too expensive for NHS patients? Whatever the answer, Labour must ensure it does not completely remove the incentive for pharmaceutical companies to invest in the research and development of new drugs. In the context of the growing crisis around antimicrobial resistance, this is especially important.

“Real capital spending” 

In his address to conference, Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, took aim at the Government’s recent proposed capital spending increase, dismissing the £1.8 billion boost as a “cash con”. This relates to a dispute over whether the Government’s £1.8 billion boost constituted “new” money or was merely funds that were tied up within the system and released by the Government.

Mr Ashworth stated that Labour would not seek to stimulate capital projects through private finance initiative (PFI) schemes. He said: “In the election we will outline a plan to rebuild our hospitals and health centres. We’ll invest in the best modern equipment and technology. It will all be done through real public spending. ” 

Mr Ashworth was coy as to how much public funding would be made available to boost capital and revitalise the ageing NHS estate. The shadow health secretary insisted that, once an election campaign is underway, Labour policy on this matter would go substantially further than that of the current Government.

Estates directors across the NHS will welcome the rhetoric on capital funding. However, with the NHS’s backlog maintenance budget alone currently sitting at around £10 billion, Mr Ashworth would do well to set out exactly how much of a boost in capital funding Labour would deliver. This is especially important considering the party’s desire to abandon PFI schemes completely.

Addressing inequality and privatisation 

Labour has outlined several other ambitious health policy proposals synonymous with its “for the many” mentality. This includes commitments to scrap prescription charges in England and revitalising mental health services, particularly for children. Labour has also sought to address workforce challenges by announcing its intention to double GP training places and create firmer requirements for flexible working. “More doctors, more nurses, more midwives, that’s a Labour promise,” said Mr Ashworth.

Anti-privatisation rhetoric was unsurprisingly apparent throughout the conference this year, with the shadow health secretary using his speech to say that: “A Labour Government will prevent the medicine shortages of a no deal Brexit and fight a trade deal with [President] Trump that sells off our NHS. ” 

Mr Ashworth went on to say that he was, “calling an end to this racket”, insisting that healthcare should be delivered based on human need and not driven by markets, profits and competition. “Privatisation will end,” he said. “Care will be planned, and decisions made democratically accountable. ” 

Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, used his speech to announce an £8 billion a year funding boost to develop free personal care for the elderly across England. This comes as part of a “National Care Service” that would raise standards for social care workers by scrapping zero-hours contracts, introducing real living wages for carers and ending 15-minute care visits.

Will health be Labour’s rallying cry once more?

Labour’s plans are highly ambitious and facilitating them will require enormous boosts in public spending. The party claims this boost will amount to at least £30 billion extra per year. Jon Ashworth stated that with these policies “the next Labour Government will rebuild the NHS”.

With an election looming, Labour is keen to use bold policy announcements to ensure the NHS remains a voting battleground on which it can win. Furthermore, big policy announcements concerning healthcare will always help in uniting and energising Labour Party members.

However, while conference delegates appeared outwardly keen to demonstrate unity with regular chants of “oh, Jeremy Corbyn,” the chasms Brexit has caused in the party are all too plain to see. Ultimately, the divisive nature of the conference served to undermine much of the impact that the leader of the Opposition was hoping to have by announcing policies that, under “normal” circumstances, would have been regarded as big and bold.

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