It has not yet been a month since the General Election and only a week has passed since the Queen's speech. Yet the reality of things to come under a Conservative majority government is already clear and it's the future of our NHS that concerns me the most.
In 2015, the NHS finds itself in a precarious place. Services are going backwards at the same time as demand is growing. People are living longer but not necessarily healthier lives and preventable diseases are placing an increasing burden on the NHS. Obesity alone costs £5billion a year, while Type 2 diabetes is costing £9billion. If we carry on as we are, this is set to rise drastically to a level that we cannot sustain.
To guarantee the future of our NHS, we urgently need a sea change in our approach to keeping the nation well. Yet only a few weeks into this Tory Government and it's clear that we have an uphill battle on our hands. This week, the Chief Executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, said that the NHS needs to focus on preventing lifestyle-related diseases to reduce the billions of pounds it costs the NHS to treat them. George Osborne's announcement yesterday that £200million will be taken out of the budget that funds this work therefore begs real questions. While there are efficiencies to be had in all budgets, we will be studying the detail to ensure that these do not adversely affect programmes which save money as well as improve health, particularly in areas such as school nursing, health screening, smoking cessation and clinical services such as sexual health and HIV prevention.
Concerns about whether the Tories can be trusted on public health come as no surprise when we consider their record. Over the past five years, the health of many of the most vulnerable people in our society has worsened and health inequalities have widened. The Coalition's flagship policy, the Responsibility Deal, which encourages business to take voluntary steps to improve public health was responsible for a major step backwards. These concerns were echoed last month by the Chair of the Health Select Committee, Sarah Wollaston. Dr Wollaston criticised the programme saying it isn't enough to take a 'passive approach' and that the Government needs to 'go much further than we have up until now with the Responsibility Deal.' Sadly the Government shows no sign of listening.
The Conservatives, as ever, are leaving it to the market and hoping companies will sort it out themselves. There is no sign of the robust action of the sort Labour proposed in our manifesto and which I was pleased to hear Simon Stevens endorse this week. No sign of a comprehensive programme to protect children's health, promote physical activity and provide adults with the information and opportunity to make healthy choices. So far the £200million budget cut has been the only announcement we've had on public health. Considering Jeremy Hunt pledged in his first speech since being reappointed as health secretary to make public health a priority, he's got off to a terrible start.
If Jeremy Hunt is serious about fulfilling his promise then he needs to urgently change his approach. Instead of piecemeal, voluntary programmes, we need solid action. He must show leadership, put evidence before ideology and stand up to vested interests. The health of our nation and the future of our NHS depend on it.
Luciana Berger is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Liverpool Wavertree and shadow minister for public health