Boris Johnson has pledged to recruit ’50,000′ more nurses as he put the NHS at the heart of his Tory manifesto for the 2019 general election.
The £750 million-a-year promise to boost staff numbers - as well as a plan for 50 million more GP surgery appointments annually - was the new centrepiece of his programme for government for the next five years.
But within minutes, Labour accused him of “fake” figures as it emerged that a big chunk of the ‘new’ staff - 18,500 -would actually come from retaining existing nurses currently working in the health service.
He also came under fire for failing to offer any detailed plan for the social care crisis and for failing to invest enough in public services more widely.
Speaking in Telford, the marginal Tory-held seat in the midlands, the prime minister set out a six-point “guarantee” that included more police, new immigration controls, climate change action and more cash for schools and science.
Johnson also promised to deliver Brexit by the end of January, bringing back to the Commons before Christmas a bill to enact his divorce deal with Brussels.
Using cash saved from not going ahead with corporation tax cuts, the Tories will restore support to student nurses, giving them between £5,000 and £8,000 in a maintenance grant every year during their training.
New support for students will produce an extra 14,000 nurses, while 12,500 more will come from overseas and 5,000 from new nurse apprenticeships, party aides revealed.
However, the bulk of the 50,000 staff increase overall will come from better ‘retention’ of existing staff.
New measures to improve childcare for those who want to return to work and fresh training and management support will be the drivers for retention, party sources said.
The party believes its aim of persuading roughly 4,000 more nurses a year to stay in the health service is achievable, but critics say the figures seem arbitrary.
The Conservatives will also recruit 6,000 more GPs and 6,000 more primary care professionals such as pharmacists and physiotherapists.
But shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told HuffPost: “First of all we had Johnson’s fake 40 new hospitals. Now we have his fake 50,000 extra nurses. The Conservatives’ claim on nurses is frankly deceitful.
“Matt Hancock and Tory ministers forced through the abolition of the bursary partly causing the nursing crisis afflicting our NHS today.
“The new damaging Tory nurses’ tax on European nurses will make it impossible to deliver the nurses our NHS needs.”
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said: “They are trumpeting a reversal of their own bungled policy of scrapping the nursing bursary – a problem of their own making.
“No one should be fooled by the promises for the NHS and public sector. For the past nine years the Tories have slashed funding and let services slide.”
At just 59 pages, the Tory manifesto was deliberately slim and designed to target both NHS staff and working class Labour Leave voters. Its back page included a photo of workers who met the PM in the North East last week.
As well as new NHS policies, the raft of commitments in the manifesto included:
- an extra £500m a year in after-school and summer holiday childcare ― a pledge not to increase income tax, National Insurance contributions or VAT.
- axeing hospital parking charges for selected patients and NHS staff,
- a ban on exporting plastic waste to poor countries
- half a billion pounds on fixing road potholes and £6bn on home insulattion and boiler upgrades
- £4bn more for flood defences
- a joint UK-Ireland bid to host the 2030 men’s football World Cup
In a clear signal that he plans to serve for two terms of office, Johnson repeatedly set out his vision of the UK “in ten years’ time”.
“A Britain where the streets are safer, where the air is cleaner, where we have built 40 new hospitals,” he said.
Environmentalists said there was little new on climate change, but in a jibe at Labour’s leader, Johnson joked: “I say let’s go carbon neutral by 2050 and Corbyn neutral by Christmas!”
In another new move, a Tory government would pass a new law to legislate to ensure rail services continue to operate even during strike action, with employers and unions forced to enter into “minimum service agreements”.
On Brexit, the manifesto promises to bring back the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in Parliament before 25 December and to ratify the prime minister’s Brexit deal by 31 January. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill passed its Commons second reading in October.
“My early Christmas present to the nation will be to bring the Brexit bill back before the festive break, and get parliament working for the people,” Johnson said.
Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank, said the Tories’ position on taxes could “come back to bite” the party as it could limit their ability to cope with pressures on the NHS from an ageing society.
“If we are going to undo austerity to any extent, we are going to need more money for the health service,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.
“At some point over the next decade we are going to have to raise taxes or accept we are going to have less in the way of public services... No party is taking that serious message to the electorate... In the Conservatives’ case they are saying, ‘Nobody needs to pay.’”