Here’s how we could pay for the NHS after pandemic – Patrick Mercer

NOBODY can have missed the warlike vocabulary that’s being used in the nation’s campaign (there, I’ve just done it myself) against Covid-19.

How should the NHS be funded in future?

We’ve been ‘invaded’, we’re ‘under siege’ and, on the BBC the other day, the new vaccine was even described as our ‘counter-attack’.

And so it goes on with our Prime Minster emulating Churchill and the nation searching for a ‘Blitz spirit’.

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But whether you buy into this crisis and our response, or see it as some sort of agitprop, there can be no denying that our economy has been jolted onto a war footing.

How will the NHS be funded in the future? Former MP Patrick Mercer poses the question.

Huge debts are being built up which, just like 1815, 1918 and 1945, will have to be paid for over many years to come – the difference being that we can’t shift our production line from tanks to cars, we can’t turn swords into ploughshares and we can’t demobilise navies and air forces.

Whether there’s several 
more Covid spikes, cancer runs riot or the price of drugs soars, the bill for the NHS will continue to be enormous and, I suggest, expand. But how do we pay for 
it?

Now, when I became an MP, I’d been shielded from the realities of normal life by the blanket, khaki wool, of the Army. Twenty-five years in uniform had insulated me from what made my constituents tick and I had to learn fast.

The first lesson was that 
many of my constituents were elderly, frail and with various, medical needs. Not surprisingly, this meant that doctors and 
the NHS generally were centre stage.

Patrick Mercer is a former Conservative MP.

And I also learnt that older people often have more time, are usually articulate and the years have shown them how to voice their needs effectively.

Really, there was only one issue in my former constituency – healthcare – and it dominated to such an extent that I soon learnt to run my surgeries from Newark Hospital.

Now, of course, there were other problems (the appalling condition of our schools and swathes of homeless people spring immediately to mind) but the flood of folk with medical queries just made it easier to do things from the hospital. And it gave me a chance to see the NHS at first hand.

This pandemic has lionised the NHS. From our slavish obedience to the medical experts on the daily telly briefings to the Thursday night ‘clap for carers’, our health workers have become today’s Nelson – they’re the Girls and Boys in (light) Blue, the New Few.

But, unlike victorious 
armies, we can’t send them home. And this institution will get what its customers – the people – want. Just watch how NHS costs climb.

So, I come back to the question of how we afford it. Well, we could start with a bit of ‘physician heal thyself’. When I suggested improvements to NHS administrators they, quite rightly, told me that they 
mended and looked after people 24/7 and that any attempt to oil the ever turning wheel meant taking it off its axle first: that wouldn’t work.

That argument was used too much, though, especially when you looked at the costs and efficiencies of, say, the ambulance service, a sector that needs urgent reform. I have nothing but admiration for our paramedics and crews, but the needlessly complex, poorly directed and hidebound service that I witnessed could save millions and solve many clinical and compassionate problems if it were to be reformed.

I could go on: different trusts struggling to operate across county boundaries, inefficiencies of scale, hospitals with incompatible ‘protocols’, ideological barriers which made co-operation with private healthcare difficult – and there’s much more. This vital service needs to spend its own money better.

But, if the Chancellor wants some ready cash, here are some suggestions. First, repeal the legislation that forces us to send about £15bn abroad every year – that could fill about 10 per cent of the health budget.

Then, axe HS2 and trouser £100bn. And what about our dealings with China, especially Huawei? Untangling its involvement with 5G will be costly, but a redirection of jobs and funds will bear not just economic but security fruit in the medium term.

Lastly – and I hate saying this – what about our withered Armed Forces? We spend about £40m on people and machines which the Government simply doesn’t have the guts to use.

For instance, Yorkshire contains Britain’s largest, military base, yet manpower to help with the winter’s floods was slow to be deployed and there wasn’t much of it. Currently, troops are being used to operate mobile Covid testing centres across the country .

And why on earth wasn’t 
Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus – the Navy’s casualty receiving ship with over 100 beds – sent to 
Hull?

Clearly, it’s not a simple business, but directing some of our £40bn defence budget towards the national emergency known as the economy has got to make sense.

There are big, revolutionary decisions to be made in the next few months and the Prime Minister must get a grip of his Cabinet and take them.

Could this be his Finest Hour?

Patrick Mercer OBE is a former Conservative MP for Newark.

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