The Tories have pledged to meet NHS funding needs "in full" as the rival parties unveiled health policies targeting new mothers and OAPs on Friday. With the General Election outcome still too close to call, the main parties are scrapping for crucial undecided voters for whom health is a key issue.
Labour will publish a mini-manifesto including a new right to a dedicated midwife before and after childbirth, with leader Ed Milband promising the sort of "personalised one-to-one care" seen in TV hit Call The Midwife. The Tories, who have seen the polls shift marginally towards their main rivals amid criticism of a negative campaign, will target the over-75s with a promise that they will be guaranteed same-day access to GPs.
And in a challenge to Labour to commit to filling a looming black hole in health service finances, Prime Minister David Cameron said the move will be possible because a Conservative government would guarantee the extra £8 billion a year by 2020 called for by the head of the NHS.
Chancellor George Osborne said the party's manifesto would "commit to a minimum real terms increase in NHS funding of £8 billion in the next five years". "Decisions about spending go to the heart of our politics because they reflect our values. We in the Conservative Party are in no doubt about our approach: the NHS is something precious, we value it for the security it provides to everyone in our country, and we will always give it the resources it needs," he said in The Guardian.
The Opposition - which claims the scale of spending cuts promised by the Tories would inevitably mean cuts to the health service - said senior Tories had repeatedly failed to say how they would pay for the extra funding. "The Tories are briefing the same story they've done five times before. There is still no firm commitment, still no idea where the money's coming from - and they still can't be trusted on NHS," a spokesman said.
A blueprint unveiled by chief executive Simon Stevens last October predicted that if health spending in rose only in line with inflation, growing demand for care would leave NHS England with a £30 billion funding gap by 2020. The chief executive said around £22 billion of that could be meet through efficiencies - but the rest would have to come from government coffers, something he insisted was "perfectly feasible as the economy improves for the next government to address".
Chancellor George Osborne has already devoted an additional £2 billion to the first year of the next parliament as a "down payment" but the Liberal Democrats are the only party so far to have set out a costed proposal to plug the whole gap. Labour is pledging to provide a £2.5 billion "Time to Care" fund - on top of the extra money promised by Osborne - paid for by taxes on expensive properties and tobacco companies and a crackdown on tax avoidance.
The Prime Minister said he would protect the "amazing" health service by funding in full the reform plan and again drew on his personal experience of the care of his severely disabled son Ivan, who died in 2009. "As someone whose been supported by the NHS at the most difficult time in my life, I'm utterly committed to ensuring it is there for everyone when they need it too," he said.
"That's why I'm backing the NHS's own plan with the cash required to ensure it can continue to deliver an amazing service to patients and their families in the future."
Labour said its plans to provide 3,000 extra midwives would make it possible to enshrine in NHS rules the right to care from a designated midwife for the entire labour, birth and period immediately afterwards. A baby boom and staff shortages have combined to stretch maternity services to the limit.
Joining Cameron in seeking to highlight his own personal experience of the NHS, Miliband told of the "brilliant care" he and wife Justine received when their sons Samuel and Daniel were born. Evoking the popular 1950s-set TV programme, he said: "Call The Midwife shouldn't just be a TV programme from the past but part of our NHS future too. We need to ensure the NHS can offer every woman the personalised one-to-one care we expect from a modern and thriving health service. Our fully-funded plan will provide the extra staff including midwives needed to give them the time to care. Because it is time to care for our NHS."
Elsewhere on the campaign trail, the Liberal Democrats are promising new laws to protect people's rights online within the first six months of a new coalition government. The move would strengthen data protection laws, with beefed-up powers for the Information Commissioner and the threat of prison sentences for firms illegally selling personal information.
Other measures contained in the proposed Digital Rights Bill include a code of practice for websites to correct defamatory or inaccurate information, although the Lib Dems insisted this would be matched with safeguards to protect free speech online.
The plans also include enshrining in law the responsibility of the Government to defend press freedom for journalists and citizen journalists online. A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: "The Conservative ideological obsession with cutting the size of the state means they cannot afford this unfunded spending commitment. The Liberal Democrats are the only party who has committed to giving the NHS the £8 billion it needs and have set out how we will pay for it. Tory spending plans will not help the NHS but rather destroy vital public service and decimate basic entitlements."