Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer
Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer has outlined Labour's approach to the NHS and health in Britain. TOBY MELVILLE/Reuters

The Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has outlined the Labour Party's mission to "create an NHS fit for the future" in a speech made in the town of Braintree, Essex. The mission is one of five national missions on which Labour will base its next general election manifesto.

The next general election is due in January 2025. By that time, the Labour Party will have been out of power for nearly 15 years. Back in May 2010, after thirteen years in government, Labour lost its majority under the leadership of Gordon Brown.

The recent local election results have given hope to Labour, with Starmer claiming the party is on course to gain a majority at the next general election.

Historically, the NHS has been a point of pride for the Labour Party. In his speech, Starmer referenced the words of Nye Bevan, the Labour Health Secretary who saw the creation of the NHS back in 1948. Bevan stated that "illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay; nor an offence for which they should be penalised."

These words indicate Labour's mindset when it comes to health and the NHS. Accordingly, Starmer argued that the provision of "a public and universal health system, free at the point of use, paid for by general taxation" is one of the core ways working people can be served in Britain.

Towards the end of his speech after referring again to Nye Bevan, Starmer pleaded guilty to being "dewy-eyed" and "romantic" about the core values of the NHS. The Labour leader spoke about his mother, "a proud nurse," who endured severe illness throughout her life "with a rare condition called Still's disease."

Whilst Starmer may have a reputation for moving the party back to the centre ground of British politics after the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, his words seem to be an attempt to show his commitment to Labour's historic values.

The NHS and the Conservatives

As you might expect, Starmer talked critically of the Conservative party's record in government and their attitude towards the NHS.

On their record in government, the Labour leader speculated that the NHS would not survive "five more years of Tory government." In his words, the Conservatives have brought the NHS "to its knees."

Missed appointments, failures in early diagnosis, problems around hospital discharge, long A&E waiting times, "record numbers off work sick," excessive waiting lists, "people pulling their own teeth out," and slow ambulance response times were key NHS problems Starmer listed in the opening remarks of his speech.

However, the attack was on more than just the government's record on the NHS, but also on the mindset of the conservatives towards health policy.

According to Starmer, "while they have come to accept it as part of the political furniture," the conservatives "don't believe in its central promise." Because of their "ideology," Starmer argued, the priorities of the Conservatives are elsewhere. Although where exactly he did not say.

More specifically, referring to "£200 billion a year," Starmer proceeded to imply that the "small state vision of Britain" advocated by the conservatives is incommensurate with the investment needed to sustain the NHS.

However, reduced waiting times and faster treatment featured as one of the Prime Minister's five key priorities for 2023.

Furthermore, in his speech on "building a better future" delivered back in January, PM Rishi Sunak highlighted the value he sees in the NHS as a national institution, referring also to his family like the Labour leader.

"When I talk about the NHS," the PM explained, "I'm not just talking about a prized public service. I'm talking about my family's life calling. My Dad was a Doctor. I grew up working in my Mum's pharmacy."

He went on to defend his record on the NHS, referring to an increase in funding for health and social care, the increased recruitment of doctors and nurses, and the deployment of cutting-edge technology in hospitals.

NHS Funding

The Labour leader acknowledged the importance of money for reforms that have the potential to see the fit for the future NHS Labour seeks to deliver. However, his speech was about presenting a "recipe for reform," and not about specifying the details of future NHS spending.

Labour plans to make more specific funding commitments closer to the next general election. In Starmer's words: "We will make decisions based on a full appreciation of reality – on the state of the NHS and our public finances" before the next election.

However, Starmer did state that the removal of non-dom tax status would fully fund "the biggest expansion of NHS training in its history," with the Labour leader committing to "more nurses, doctors, midwives and health visitors."

Labour Reforms

So what exactly is Labour promising in terms of NHS reforms? Labour's first goal is to "deliver an NHS that is there when you need it."

Firstly, this goal entails delivering ambulance waiting times of seven minutes for instances of cardiac arrest. Secondly, improved A&E waiting times with the implementation of a four-hour target.

Furthermore, higher GP satisfaction, decreased waiting lists, and the delivery of "planned treatment within 18 weeks," are also standards the Labour leader pledged to meet if Labour form a government.

Labour's second goal entails improving "healthy life expectancy for all" and halving the "inequality gap between different regions of England," the Starmer explained, addressing unfairness in health outcomes between different parts of the county.

To achieve this, Starmer advocated focusing on "our biggest killers," including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and suicide.

Within 10 years, Labour is committed to reducing heart attacks and strokes by a quarter. On cancer, Starmer pledged to ensure that "75 per cent of all cancer is diagnosed at stage one or two," emphasising the link between early diagnosis and survival rates. And lastly, Labour aims to reduce suicide rates. To what extent Starmer did not say, although he noted the rate is going up in Britain.

In order to progress health outcomes, the Labour leader specified three shifts that should be placed "at the heart of everything we do on health."

Firstly, moving health care closer to communities and away from hospitals so that the NHS acts as a "Neighbourhood Health Service." The emphasis should be placed on treating people early in the community so they don't end up in hospitals where it can be too late, Starmer explained. This can save money and reduce mortality according to the Labour leader.

Secondly, moving away from the view that health is primarily about sickness. Instead, Britain should focus on prevention and early intervention. Moreover, Labour's NHS mission is a broader health mission according to Starmer.

The Labour leader pledged "8,500 new mental health professionals" as part of a revolution in British mental health treatment. Mental health is an area where "early intervention can make a huge difference" according to Starmer.

Thirdly, a focus on utilising the benefits of technology within the NHS. Starmer articulated the objective of transitioning from an "analogue to a digital NHS."

For example, Starmer explained how artificial intelligence (AI) can reduce workloads and increase productivity, referring to Lung cancer diagnosis as one area where AI can make a difference. For example, in the hands of a radiologist, he explained how AI can help reduce the number of missed diagnoses by 60 per cent.

In broader technology news, a new machine learning tool called CRANK-MS is able to identify the early bio-markers of Parkinson's disease with 90 per cent accuracy. This kind of tech allows for the early intervention the Labour leader has advocated.

The Labour leader acknowledged Britain's technological prowess within the global international order. Making Britain a science and technology superpower by 2030 is one of the current government's key objectives.

Recently, Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay took the lead at the G7 health ministers' meeting which discussed the ways in which technology can "improve patient care, reduce pressure on health and social care staff and cut waiting times for patients."

Moreover, for the government technological innovation and AI are a key part of the current agenda.