Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to ringfence the National Health Service budget if the Conservatives are victorious in the next general election, but his promises have failed to impress those on the front line. 

In his address at the party conference this week, he told delegates: “The next Conservative Government will protect the NHS budget and continue to invest more. Because we know this trutth… something Labour will never understand – and we will never forget…you can only have a strong NHS if you have a strong economy”.

He also noted that the coalition had secured 6,500 more doctors and 3,300 nurses during its tenure, as well as an increase in cash for cancer diagnostic services, in a bid to impress voters.

The pledge echoes that made by the Tories during the last general election in 2010, which hit the right note with the public at the time. But many healthcare providers believe ‘merely’ protecting cash flow to the NHS is nowhere near enough to keep it from buckling under the strain of cost pressures.

The British Medical Association says pledges on NHS investment “are only worthwhile if they keep up with rising patient demand”. 

“The NHS is going through its tightest spending period in 50 years. Even with a protected budget, patient demand and costs are rising faster than investment, which is why the NHS is facing a gap in funding of £30 billion by 2020 and services are stretched to breaking point”.

“Frontline staff are under extreme pressure, with unmanageable workloads often preventing them from being able to deliver the high-quality care they want to for their patients,” he warned.

Responding to Cameron’s speech, NHA co-leader Clive Peedell said “the austerity and pro-market policies of the Tories are a toxic mixture that will be fatal to the NHS”.

‘Meaningless’ promise

“Just saying you will “protect the NHS budget and continue to invest more” is meaningless,” and failing to address black hole in funding “will result in more hospital closures, more staff cuts, more service failures, further rationing of care, and ultimately charging and co-payment”, he said, warning “if the Tories are re-elected then we can wave goodbye to an NHS that is free at the point of use”.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, the country’s biggest union, was equally damning. “[Cameron’s] efforts to position himself as the saviour of the NHS are simply insulting…The bald truth is that the NHS is being privatised before our very eyes and will not survive another five years of Tory government”. 

Chris Ham, chief executive of think-tank The King’s Fund, pointed out that neither Labour nor the Conservatives have addressed the scale of the funding challenge facing the NHS. 

“In the short term, more money is needed to support NHS organisations struggling as a result of the unprecedented pressures on their budgets and meet the costs of essential changes to services. While there is still scope to improve productivity, unless this funding is found, patients will bear the cost as staff numbers are cut, waiting times rise and quality of care deteriorates,” he stressed.